Things were bad enough, early enough for both of these teams that around the league many expected both to be sellers at the trade deadline. Didn’t happen. Their front offices stuck with their cores and added rather than subtracted.
They both find themselves in Wednesday night’s win-or-go-home 9/10 play-in game in the East. The winner flies to Miami for a Friday night game to determine the eighth seed. The loser goes on an early vacation and faces some tough off-season questions.
Here are three things to watch in this game.
1) Can DeRozan, LaVine handle Nick Nurse’s pressure defense?
Toronto is a solid defensive team, 11th in the league this season. However, playoff basketball is about matchups and the Raptors’ length and athleticism could be a nightmare for the Bulls.
We’ll see what Nick Nurse decides but expect a lot of pressure and guys jumping passing lanes. Look for OG Anunoby — one of the best perimeter defenders in the league — to start the game on DeMar DeRozan. That will likely put Scottie Barnes, a long and physically strong defender, on Zach LaVine. The Raptors also now lean on Jakob Poeltl to protect the rim inside should those guys get beat
All of that makes this a rough matchup for the Bulls. Chicago may counter with the athleticism of Patrick Williams to match up, but is he ready to perform on this stage? We know the Raptors will not be shaken by the moment.
2) The Jakob Poeltl factor
A couple of weeks before the trade deadline, general managers around the league were hatching strategies to get Pascal Siakam and the other top players out of Toronto when the Raptors became sellers.
Except the Raptors became buyers, moving to add big man Poeltl out of San Antonio. That addition helped turn their season around.
The Raptors went 15-10 with Poeltl in the lineup (only one of those games was against the Bulls). Poeltl changes the Toronto defense with his physicality in the paint, and the Raptors are 5.6 points per 100 possessions better on that end when he is on the court. On the offensive end, he is the kind of solid screener who creates space for gifted offensive players such as Siakam.
The Raptors’ front office believes in this core, but it needed a more traditional center in the middle to unlock it. Poeltl has done that and the Bulls need to find a way to counter him.
3) Which team hits some 3s?
In a league in love with the 3-pointer, neither of these teams was very good at it. The Raptors shot 33.5% from beyond the arc as a team, 28th in the league. The Bulls make the ones they take — 36.1%, ranked 16th — but they took just 28.9 per game, dead last in the league.
This isn’t rocket science, if one of these teams can get a shooter or two hot from 3 it will change the course of this game and give them a huge advantage.
Fred VanVleet (34.2% on 8.8 attempts a game) or maybe Gary Trent Jr. (38.9% on 6.8 attempts a game) are the most likely Raptors to get hot. For the Bulls, Zach LaVine is the guy to watch.