Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Bulls, Jan. 3

Oh no, a hot Bulls team.

The Raptors have won three straight against Chicago after being dominated by this Bulls franchise for what has felt like an eternity. It’s no surprise really, and should be expected given the changes that Chicago has undergone recently but damn if it doesn’t feel nice. Toronto responded to brutal back-to-back losses against Dallas and Oklahoma City with an easy win against Atlanta before rallying against the Bucks at home, and seem to have momentum back on their side. (We see you DeRozan)

While those losses (especially the Mavs one) seemed to upset the entire country, it’s important to keep a cool head in what is a very long season. Toronto still ranks in the top 6 in both Offensive Efficiency and Defensive Efficiency, joining Golden State as the only two teams to accomplish that feat this season. They’re also 5th in true shooting percentage despite what the eye-test may be showcasing lately and DeMar DeRozan just scored 52 freaking points to set the franchise record.

To add even more positives to the mix (without jinxing them) the Raptors have a fully healthy roster for just the third time since November. Lucas Noguiera and Norman Powell felt the brunt of that healthy roster by receiving DNP-CD’s and it will be interesting to see if Casey sticks with another 10-man rotation on Wednesday night. Powell is an important piece to this team even if he’s not playing like it, and the Raps will need to make some tough decisions about whether or not he can sort through his problems.

The game tips off at 8:00 on Sportsnet One and TSN1150.

To help sort through this preview I reached out to Vijay Vemu from SportsNation who writes for blogabull.com. Thanks Vijay!

Cam Dorrett: Nikola Mirotic has been by far the best player on Chicago this season. What do the Raptors have to do to contain him on Wednesday night?

Vijay Vemu: Mirotic has been absolutely balling out for Chicago ever since he returned and it’s clear he is their best player. If the Raptors do want to contain Mirotic, they will have to take away the space between him and his man. If given the chance, Mirotic will always try to shoot the ball. It’s his bread and butter. So Toronto will likely have to go over screens and get up in Mirotic’s grill in order to cancel out the shooting

Cam Dorrett: Chicago had one of the best records in the entire NBA during December and went on a stretch where they won 10 of 13 games. What has been the biggest reason for this “turn around” out of seemingly nowhere?

Vijay Vemu: A huge reason has been the return of Mirotic. Like I said in the answer above, Niko has been unreal. He’s shooting lights out and can do it all offensively at the moment. Chicago’s offense is a whole lot better when he’s on the court and it massively helps their spacing. He’s certainly carried them to some wins and will likely to continue to do so. Another big reason is that the young guys have stepped up. Most particularly Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. Those two guys have played the best of the young players. Dunn has looked to have turned it around while Portis has been playing the best ball of his career. I think we may see some regression from Portis but the play of all three has been incredible.

Cam Dorrett: To put it bluntly, this team has a mountain to climb to relevancy this season..but at least possess some good young pieces including Lauri Markannen. What has impressed you most about his game this season?

Vijay Vemu:  His ability to put the ball on the floor and guard in space. We knew Markkanen was a good shooter coming out of the draft but there were questions about the rest of his game. Questions about his defense and how complete of an offensive player he could be. He’s showed some good promise in both of those categories during his rookie year. Multiple times Markkanen has shown the ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays. Whether it be a pull up jumper or a graceful drive to the rim, Markkanen has showed he’s not just a shooter. He’s also shown he can hold his own defensively when switched onto guards. Markkanen will never have a preferable matchup against a guard but during times in games where he was switched onto one, he hasn’t gotten completely embarrassed. When it comes to big men guarding in space, you can only ask for so much. With Markkanen, he’s done well as a rookie when it comes to defending quicker guys in space.

Cam Dorrett: Zach Lavine has started to play (and play well) with Chicago’s G-League affiliate. How excited should Bulls fans be for his return? What does he give this team when he’s in the lineup?

Vijay Vemu: Thanks to the winning streak, there are quite a few Bulls fans who are excited about LaVine’s return. He won’t be able to play huge minutes right away but he can still make an impact. LaVine is a great offensive player and can score the ball at all levels of the floor. His three-pointer has gotten more consistent and we all know his ability to get vertical. It’s safe to say LaVine will eventually become the #1 option for Chicago but who knows how we will play in that role. This will be an adjustment for him as well because he’s never been the guy on offense. In Minnesota he was more of a 3rd option behind Wiggins and Towns. I’m excited to see how good of a scorer LaVine can be when he’s given the keys to this Chicago offense.

Cam Dorrett: A lot of people were ready to right off Kris Dunn after his struggles in Minnesota, but he just recorded his 4th double-double of the year (after only 1 in the season prior). How much do you believe in him being the starting point guard of the future?

Vijay Vemu: I was very skeptical of Dunn’s play but he has came a long way in his development this season. He’s been more confident offensively which has been the biggest thing. Although it’s troubling to see him hitting from mid range, because who knows how consistent it is, if Dunn can continue to work on his form, he might become a better shooter. But he’s looking like Chicago’s point guard of the future right now.

Cam Dorrett: David Nwaba replaced Denzel Valentine at the half on Monday and while he didn’t affect the game on the offensive end, his defense was impressive. Who is going to end up winning this battle?

Vijay Vemu: I’ll keep this short and say Valentine likely gets the spot although Nwaba should be getting more minutes. We have seen in multiple situations that Hoiberg has chosen Valentine over Nwaba. Personally I’m a Nwaba guy and think his defense+hustle is what makes him a valuable player for Chicago. But Valentine likely wins cause of his offensive potential.

Cam Dorrett: You recently wrote about another Bulls collapse late, and seemed to call out Fred Hoiberg more than anyone else. How hot is his seat in Chicago?

Vijay Vemu: For the record, I feel like Hoiberg has made big strides this year as a coach! He gets a lot of heat from the media but fred has done a great job and credit should be given where it’s due. The seat isn’t that hot in Chicago considering how some guys have developed this year. He still has ways to go as a coach. Particulaly in adjustments and close game situations. But he’s gone well this season.

Cam Dorrett: Chances that Serge Ibaka and Robin Lopez get in another fight tonight?

Vijay Vemu: No haha I don’t think so. While it would be a crazy thing to happen. Don’t know who I would take if it did happen.

Cam Dorrett: Ibaka all day. Thanks Vijay, you can follow him on twitter @VJVemu.

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