Keys to the Game: Bulls at Raptors (03.21.17)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (33-37) make their one and only trip north of the border to take on the Toronto Raptors (41-29) in the third of three meetings this season. Chicago won the previous two, both at the United Center, and carry with them a streak of 11 straight victories over the Raptors dating back to December 31, 2013.

The last time the Bulls and Toronto met was Valentine’s Day with Chicago coming out on top, 105-94. Doug McDermott came off the Bulls’ bench to lead the team with 20 points, while Jimmy Butler notched 19 and dished 12 assists. Chicago’s bench stepped up in a big way, outscoring their Canadian counterparts 54-34. Chicago scored the final six points in the opening quarter to take a 24-18 lead after one and never trailed again. All-Star guard Kyle Lowry led Toronto’s attack with 22 points, while fellow Raptors All-Star, DeMar DeRozen, chipped in 18.   

Toronto enters tonight riding a two-game winning streak, having recently defeated Indiana and Detroit in securing a winning record for the fourth consecutive year — a first in franchise history.

Last season Toronto made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, falling in six games to the eventually NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. They came into this year feeling self-assured that if they met Cleveland again in the playoffs, they could beat them — and as of late, that might not be such a far-fetched notion. Since the All-Star break the Raptors have really upped the ante defensively, ranking first in the league by holding opponents to just 97.6 points and 43.7% shooting from the field. They also sport an NBA-best +91 scoring margin in the fourth quarter, and have only been outscored once (March 10th at Atlanta) during the final 12 minutes over their last 13 contests. In fact, the Raptors have won nine straight when holding opponents below 100 points, and overall they’re 20-4 on the year when their challengers fail to reach the century-mark.

Toronto currently is taking the floor without one of the game’s top playmakers, the aforementioned Kyle Lowry (56 games, 22.8 points, 6.9 assists, 46.3 FG %, 41.7 3FG %), after the veteran guard was recently forced to undergo right wrist surgery. But all is not lost, as Lowry is expected back by the time playoffs are to begin less than four weeks from today.

Coming into this evening, Lowry’s missed every game since the All-Star break, with Toronto going 8-5. Prior to his injury the Raptors averaged 108.5 points and 9.2 made three-pointers, however since Lowry’s been sidelined, Toronto’s offense hasn’t been as prolific, putting up 100.2 points and 7.2 made 3s. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they haven’t been getting strong play out of the point guard position, as Lowry’s primary replacement, veteran Cory Joseph, has performed quite well in averaging 12.6 points, 4.9 assists while shooting 49.0% from the field as a starter. So although the Raptors might not be as potent an offensive force, they are far from a push-over.    

Just before and right at the trade deadline, Toronto made a two major moves to help bolster its roster with the acquisition of veterans Serge Ibaka (via Orlando) and PJ Tucker (via Phoenix). Ibaka, a 6’10” power forward, leads the team with 23 made three-pointers since Lowry’s injury. He’s also shooting a very respectable 38.3% from beyond the arc and has hit multiple 3s nine times. Tucker comes off the bench each game and leads the Raptors with 16 steals and has posted a +43 rating over the same 13-game stretch.

Life hasn’t been all that pleasant for Chicago of late, as the Bulls have gone 3-8 over their last 11, however they are coming off an impressive 95-86 victory over a very tough Utah Jazz squad the other night. Butler led the way with 23 points, while second-year power forward Bobby Portis came off the bench to play his best game as a pro, posting a career-high 22 points, while rookie Denzel Valentine, also off the bench, recorded his first career double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Valentine knocked down three 3s against the Jazz and has now hit multiple 3s in seven straight games. Chicago’s bench outscored Utah’s 44-23 and the Bulls also ran past the Jazz in outscoring them 17-5 in fastbreak points.

Like Toronto with Lowry, the Bulls are also having to make do without one of their best players in future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade, who is out for the rest of the season after suffering a fractured right elbow.

With only 12 games left in the season, the Bulls find themselves in 10th place in the East, a game back of Detroit for the 8th and final playoff berth in the East. Thus every opportunity to take the floor from here on out has the feeling of a life and death struggle. For Chicago to keep its 11-game stranglehold over Toronto intact this evening, the Bulls are going to need big-time contributions from everyone in uniform. One such player who has truly answered the call is starting center Robin Lopez, who is averaging 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds on the season, but over Chicago’s last two games is putting up 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds.     

When things are going well for the Bulls it is usually because they play fast right from the start. Therefore, in order to keep rolling Chicago has to show up tonight ready to run while also sporting a gritty, blue-collar mindset. A primary factor as to just how competitive they are going to be is how they do on the boards. Currently the Bulls rank a tick below Denver (46.3) and Oklahoma City (46.2) in overall rebounding, averaging 46.1 a game, while Toronto sits near the bottom at No. 21 at 43.1 caroms a night.

As for offensive rebounding, Chicago continues to be the league leader, averaging an NBA-best mark of 12.4 per, while the Raptors are 11th, capturing 10.6 per game.

A happy circumstance of being a strong offensive rebounding team is that you are able to post a number of easy scores via put-backs and short-range jumpers. The Bulls have taken advantage of this aspect of their game as they also rank 1st in second-chance scoring (15.4). And since they aren’t a particularly good outside shooting team, being able to put points on the board via put-backs and “gimmes” has helped them stay competitive all season long.

Offensively, Chicago has proven to be at its best when they aggressively push the ball up the floor and keep it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. For their offense to click, the ball has to skip and be shared with everyone on the floor. Every player needs to be active and engaged as to what’s going on. With that in mind, the Bulls need to spread out and space the floor while at the same time look to attack the rim at every opportunity.

Chicago’s main assignment tonight is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, they have to play with an edge and refuse to back off in any way, shape or form.

The Bulls also must wrestle control of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and in doing so, look to dominate play in the paint. It’s also vital they aggressively defend the 3-point arc as Toronto, even without Lowry, will always look to score from the long distance. Most of the time the Raptors like to place at least three shooters around the arc while their center roams the paint and their lead guard attempts to attack the heart of the defense. If the defense collapses inside the paint or over rotates to cut off a driving lane to the hoop, the guard will pass the ball outside to open shooter. To counter this move defensively the Bulls need to play with physicality by sticking close to their assigned man and not look to constantly double-team. Otherwise Toronto will end up with a lot of open 3s, and if they get hot, it could end up a long night for Chicago.

—    Anthony Hyde