Previewing the Raptors-Bulls play-in game

Looking at so many details in the Toronto-Chicago matchup that perhaps only 10 percent will factor into the game. lol

The Toronto Raptors have officially limped their way through the regular season to qualify for the postseason. It was more a slog than a step forward, more a stumbling through a series of misfortunate events than a step forward. But now the game(s) are about to matter.

They've been mostly good since acquiring Jakob Poeltl, although there have been some extreme moments of letdown. That's particularly been the case recently -- and, hopefully, we can explain that by saying Toronto has mostly been aiming for a play-in spot anyway, and so there hasn't been huge incentive to try hard. Hopefully. That's not super convincing for a bunch of reasons, but it's possible.

Some early caveats: I had planned for this to be much shorter than my usual comprehensive previews, such as my work season in preparation for the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. This season, Toronto is not playing a seven-game series with the Chicago Bulls, so I did not want to go into the same level of depth. Much of the detail in the past has been about adjustments, and though there can be in-game adjustments here, it can't be to the same depth. And yet, this is as long as my usual ones for whole series. Whatever, I can't stop myself. I need to be committed. Real caveat though: If the Raptors do happen to win, I reserve the right to not do this for the second play-in game, as the turnaround would be difficult for me. Please God save me from myself.


Toronto has a pretty clean bill of health in the rotation, outside of Otto Porter jr. Siakam's legs have seemed tired for a while now, and Gary Trent jr. is still working his way back from injury, but in general things are as good as they've been all season.

Outside of Lonzo Ball, who hasn't played all year, the Bulls are in a pretty similar situation. Zach LaVine was held out recently for knee management, which was a bigger issue for him earlier in the year but has limited him much less recently. He exploded in March, and the Bulls have known their play-in fate for a while, so I doubt LaVine was held out for a real reason.

These are, more or less, two teams at their healthiest coming into the postseason.

The Basic Numbers

The Raptors and Bulls are remarkably similar teams in terms of season-long performance. Both are completely average on the season -- and have been significantly better than that since the trade deadline. Their net ratings have been plus-3.4 for Toronto since that time period and plus-3.2 for Chicago, good for 10th and 11th in the league. Both have massively underperformed their expected win totals based on net rating, so models consider both teams stronger than their win-loss records or their seeds.

Both teams also have a few small areas of strength and many areas of weakness. Crucially, some of those areas intersect, providing the best hints we can find for the key battlegrounds upon which the game will be decided.

The Raptors force a lot of turnovers, and the Bulls don't commit many turnovers. The Raptors snatch many offensive rebounds, and the Bulls don't allow many offensive rebounds. Those two components, more than any others, should go a long way to determining the game. In many ways, they did in the regular-season series between the two teams.

Season Series Numbers

The Raptors did win the season series, though Toronto's wins were close while the Bulls had a blowout in their lone win. That's why the net rating is so close.

The two teams split a back-to-back in Toronto in early November, and there were plenty of mitigating factors. Pascal Siakam missed Toronto's loss, and Zach LaVine missed Chicago's. So, not a whole lot to take away; both teams look very different without their best players. Of course, that was before Toronto added Poeltl, so Toronto in particular looked different then.

When the two teams met in late February, both teams were much healthier, looking significantly like the two teams that will meet on Wednesday. The Raptors handled LaVine and DeMar DeRozan spectacularly, as O.G. Anunoby's defense was maybe the most important component of the game. Plenty went wrong for Toronto, but it won mostly by playing hard. One hopes the same will be true in the play-in game, but it's not necessarily a guarantee.

In general, the series has looked as Toronto has dictated. The Raptors pounded the glass and forced plenty of turnovers. Because Chicago's defense is so stout, that didn't end the game. But it gave the Raptors a huge edge -- enough to overcome the efficiency gap that has plagued Toronto so devilishly this season.

Starter Matchup


PG: Fred VanVleet

SG: O.G. Anunoby

SF: Scottie Barnes

PF: Pascal Siakam

C: Jakob Poeltl


PG: Patrick Beverley

SG: Zach LaVine

SF: DeMar DeRozan

PF: Patrick Williams

C: Nikola Vucevic

This is very possibly, bordering on probably, wrong. If the Bulls want extra point-of-attack defense, Alex Caruso could start in place of Patrick Williams. Both are phenomenal defenders -- for my money, the two best on the Bulls, and probably the two best after Anunoby in the series. (You could make a case for Caruso ahead of Anunoby.) Caruso is more usually the starter for Chicago, and there hasn't been much indication that will change. (For what it's worth, Bulls reporters have said Chicago is very open to starting Williams in place of Caruso. We'll find out.)

But I am guessing Williams starts the game; he is the better shooter and gives Chicago more size to bang with Toronto's plethora of forwards. I love Caruso as a defender, and Chicago hasn't had a problem sticking him on all three of Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes this year. Siakam scored pretty well in that matchup, though; Williams just makes defense more natural for Chicago. Caruso is best at the point of attack, dissuading drives, and gapping; Toronto doesn't really do that a whole lot, and instead prefers to attack in the post. That's where Williams might have a defensive advantage. Both, of course, will play plenty of minutes, but I'm leaning towards Williams. (Ultimately, if I was Chicago, I would start both in place of Beverley. That lineup has been very good, plus-8.0 per 100 possessions, and Caruso and Williams together have played ferocious defense. But that's even less likely to happen in a singe-game series. Perhaps if it were a long series we could see it.)

Toronto's current starters have a plus-minus differential per 100 possessions of plus-9.1. The offense and defense have both been good. It's not the best high-minute lineup, but it's a very good one. (Sixth-best among groups with its number of possessions or more.) Given Nurse's propensity to play his starters big minutes, and the fact it's an elimination game, I would expect the starters to play something like 20 or more minutes together. Virtually half the game.

Chicago's starters (that I'm listing) have a plus-minus differential per 100 possessions of ... negative-31.6. Lol. That's the worst group in the league with so many possessions. With Caruso in place of Williams it's plus-12.9. I still think Williams starts because of the specific matchup against Toronto, but just about everything has gone wrong with Williams starting in place of Caruso. The minute total isn't quite enough to say it's a bad lineup, but it's not a trivial minute total, either. Tough decisions for the Bulls. Significantly, Toronto could have an edge in either case: either Caruso starts, and Toronto has a big size advantage on the glass and in the post. Or Williams starts and the Bulls promise at least 10 minutes in an elimination game to a lineup that has been poor. The fact of the matter though is that Chicago doesn't have both successful and gigantic lineups -- Toronto does. That will be a boon for the Raptors.

Let's look at some individual matchups, starting with the Raptors on offense.

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