Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Bulls, Feb. 14

You just know Denzel is going off on Valentine’s Day.

The Toronto Raptors appeared ready to start their All-Star break a little early on Tuesday, taking their foot off the gas against the Miami Heat and nearly squandering a victory. They hung on, and they’re now once again on a six-game winning streak. This is already the third time this year they’ve won six in a row. They’re yet to win a seventh. Doing so would add an interesting historical note heading into the break – the Raptors already have their best record at the break locked up, as well as the one seed in the Eastern Conference, but this could mark just the fourth seven-game winning streak in franchise history.

Standing in their way are the Chicago Bulls, who hold a rest advantage here and may be stumbling into some stability now that the specter of the trade deadline has dissipated. The Bulls have won two of their last three, rebound on their own glass better than almost anyone, and take good care of the ball on offense. They’re still the Bulls, though – the Raptors have beaten them three times already, they’re a bottom-three offense and a bottom-10 defense, and they have this major incentive to lose right now. Players and coaches don’t tank, to be clear, but when there are seven teams within a game of each other for the worst record in the league and the Bulls are two games “behind” that mess, it’s hard not to mention it.

On a non-basketball note, today is Valentine’s Day, and I would like to take this time to finally admit that I am in love with you. Have a wonderful day.

The game tips off at 8 Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Sean Highkin, a smart dude people should hire to write basketball things for them.

Blake Murphy: The Bulls flipped Nikola Mirotic and a second for a first but had to take on Omer Asik’s contract to do so. They bought out Tony Allen and flipped Jameer Nelson for Willie Reed, who they also waived. And they acquired Noah Vonleh and cash for free. Taken together, how do you feel about the Bulls’ deadline moves?

Sean Highkin: I would consider the Bulls’ trade deadline to be a success. You saw how hard first-round picks were to come by at the deadline, so the fact that they were able to get one for Mirotic is a win. Taking on the Asik contract isn’t great, but it’s not like they were planning on being players in free agency in the next year or two, so it doesn’t hurt them that much. And taking a flier on Vonleh is completely fine, especially with what looks to be a depressed market for restricted free agents. If they decide to keep him, it won’t cost them much.

Blake Murphy: Zach LaVine is back, which is awesome. Obviously he’s going to take some time to get all the way back to form, but have you been encouraged through 12 games?

Sean Highkin: The early returns on LaVine have been pretty encouraging. The early struggles were expected considering he hadn’t played in a year, but his shot is falling and he’s been exactly the kind of dynamic offensive creator the Bulls have needed all season. He’s only going to get more comfortable in Fred Hoiberg’s offense as he gets further away from the injury.

Blake Murphy: Where are we at on Lauri Markkanen’s hair? Outside of that, he’s gotta be something close to a lock for All-Rookie First Team. Is there anything that’s surprised you about his game in terms of how well or how quickly it translated to the NBA?

Sean Highkin: I didn’t realize he could rebound or put the ball on the floor as well as he could. And his shot has such a quick release, which is part of why it’s translated so well. I thought he would be a solid player, but he looks like a star already.

Blake Murphy: David Nwaba is everyone’s favorite Bull, right? He has to be.

Sean Highkin: It would be hard for him not to be. He showed some promise when the Lakers called him up from the G League last season, and it was a surprise when they cut him over the summer in order to clear a roster spot to sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as a favor to LeBron’s agent. But he’s found a role and a niche in Chicago and he’s going to have a long career.

Blake Murphy: At 20-36, the Bulls are only three games from the bottom of the tank standings. It’s such a mess, though, with eight teams all within three games of each other and seven within a game. Can the Bulls out-tank the others?

Sean Highkin: Before you hit the panic button and write off the Bulls’ tank efforts, remember that John Paxton has recently talked up Cameron Payne’s imminent return after the All-Star break. The Bulls are in good hands.

Raptors updates
In a bit of a surprise, OG Anunoby played on Tuesday despite spraining his ankle on Sunday. He said before the game he was feeling much better (“Good,” to quote him at length; late, “it’s cool”), and the Raptors were careful with his minutes just in case. Anunoby played just seven minutes in the first half and six in the second, and outside of a pair of threes, he didn’t look quite himself. It’s possible he gets an extra day of rest here, but there was no indication of such a strategy last night. His limited time opened up seven minutes of run for Norman Powell and for a second game in a row that Powell-and-starters group, performed reasonably well.

The Raptors may want to try to limit minutes here on a back-to-back, though it may be less of a concern with the break coming up and with how few minutes Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have played of late. They played 33 and 35, respectively, on Tuesday, reasonable totals. The Bulls have major blowout potential, so it’s fortunate that Raptors 905 were in Chicago last night and any number of the assignment players may have just hung back to join the parent club. Lorenzo Brown is in a walking boot due to a left ankle sprain, but any of Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson, or Malcolm Miller could draw in as the 13th man here.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, , Malachi Richardson
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Alfonzo McKinnie
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Lorenzo Brown
TBD: None
905: None

Bulls updates
The Bulls found a 10-man rotation that seemed to work on Monday as they beat the Magic despite being down a point guard. The Bulls are always down a point guard, so maybe they’re just used to it at this point. With Zach LaVine back, Lauri Markkanen thriving, and Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez providing some stability, the starting lineup has been able to build more experience together than the roster turnover might otherwise suggest. The projected starters have played 102 minutes together over seven games, being outscored by only two points per-100 possessions. By Chicago’s standards, that’s great – it’s the the best of their five most commonly used lineups. There are some hybrid groups that have had success in smaller minutes (David Nwaba in LaVine’s spot, Nwaba and Kris Dunn in for LaVine and Jerian Grant), too.

The Bulls are sneakily fairly deep, they just lack present-day upside while the younger players develop. It would be fitting for Denzel Valentine to have a big performance tonight. I have bad, punny headlines ready.

Dunn is probable as he nears a return through the league’s concussion protocol and Cameron Payne remains out, though he’s expected back after the break.

PG: Jerian Grant, (Kris Dunn), Ryan Arcidiacono
SG: Zach LaVine, David Nwaba
SF: Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine
PF: Lauri Markkanen, Paul Zipser, Noah Vonleh
C: Robin Lopez, Bobby Portis, Omer Asik, Cristiano Felicio
OUT: Cameron Payne
TBD: Kris Dunn
Windy City: Antonio Blakeney

The line
The Raptors are 6.5-point favorites with a 217 over-under.

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