Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Raptors (10.19.17)

The Bulls and the Raptors meet this evening inside Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to tip-off the 2017-18 season. It’s the first time these two franchises have met on Opening Night.

For the fifth straight season All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will form the Raptors starting backcourt. They’ll be accompanied by veteran 7-foot center Jonas Valanciunas and 6’10 strongman Serge Ibaka in the frontcourt and either 3rd year swingman Norman Powell or free agent signee CJ Miles at the small forward spot.

For Chicago, Head Coach Fred Hoiberg will open the year with Jerian Grant directing the action at the point with free agent signee Justin Holiday taking over at shooting guard. Veteran Robin Lopez returns to man the middle with second year forward Paul Zipser running out on the wing and rookie Lauri Markkanen stepping in at power forward. Markkanen will be the 15th rookie in franchise history to start on Opening Night. The last Bulls Opening Night rookie starter was Derrick Rose in 2008.

Over the summer the winds of change blew through both Toronto and Chicago. Last season the Raptors reached the 50-win mark (51) for the second straight time, but were swept by Cleveland (4-0) in the second round of the playoffs. Chicago also made the postseason, claiming the 8th and final seed in the East with a record of 41-41. However, after jumping to a surprising 2-0 lead over top seeded Boston in the opening round, the Bulls dropped four straight once starting point guard Rajon Rondo was forced to the sidelines after suffering a broken thumb during Game 2.

As good as the Raptors were last year, management nonetheless opted to somewhat reshape its roster over the summer as four key rotation players (Patrick Patterson, PJ Tucker, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll) were sent packing in order to open opportunities to a handful of younger guys (Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and rookies Alfonzo McKinnie and OG Anunoby).

Lowry and DeRozan form one of the most prolific backcourts in all of basketball, as combined they typically put up 45-50 points every night. Lowry is a hardnosed, blue-collar bulldog who isn’t afraid to attack the rim and quite capable of pulling up at the arc and firing away from downtown. DeRozan also likes to take the action to the cup, seeking out contact in order to make opponents pay a price in both fouls and points being put on the board from the charity stripe. And although Toronto, as a team, ranked 8th in scoring at 106.9 points per game last season, they were dead last in assist percentage (47.2%), as the once the ball landed in either one of their All-Stars hands, it often didn’t find its way into anyone else’s. It’s not that Lowry or DeRozan are unwilling passers, quite the contrary, but when the shot clock began to tick closer to zero both tended to take matters into their own hands.

The new look Bulls come into this year bound and determined to play fast and loose. There are nine new players on the roster who weren’t in Chicago at the end of last year.

On Draft night the Bulls dealt arguably their best player, Jimmy Butler, to Minnesota and acquired three highly athletic young players in an effort to reshape the team’s future — guards Kris Dunn (23 years old) and Zach LaVine (22 years old) and No. 7 overall pick Lauri Markkanen, a 7-foot, 20-year old rookie out of the University of Arizona. Both Dunn (dislocated finger) and LaVine (torn ACL suffered last year) are out this evening recovering from injuries. Dunn should be back in action in a couple of weeks, whereas LaVine is likely out until sometime in December. However, Markkanen is ready to play right now, coming off a strong showing in the preseason where he averaged 11.7 points and five rebounds while shooting an impressive 38.9 percent from 3-point range, including 7 of 12 from behind the bend during the last two preseason games.

“This season presents a great opportunity for all of our young guys who are looking to make their mark and solidify themselves as NBA players,” Hoiberg said yesterday before his team traveled to Toronto. “We’ve talked a lot about three things during the preseason: playing with pace, playing with movement and playing unselfishly. Everyone has really bought into all three of those areas.”

The Bulls did just that as Chicago finished fourth in assists per game (26.3) and seventh in 3-point field goal percentage (.390) during the preseason.

Chicago’s mission tonight is to come out fast and strong at both ends of the floor and never slow down. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Bulls have carry a chip on their shoulder and be tenacious in every phase of the game. They have to wrestle control of the boards — both offensive and defensive —and not allow Toronto opportunities to run out on the break for easy scores.

It’s also vital Chicago aggressively defend the 3-point arc as the Raptors, and in particular Lowry and free agent pick up CJ Miles, won’t be shy about firing from downtown. Miles averaged 15.3 points off the bench during the preseason and led the Raps with 14 made treys over four games.

These two teams faced each other just last week in Chicago to close out the preseason. What had been a tight contest through three quarters (the score was knotted at 87 by the start of the fourth) saw Toronto take command during the final stanza, hitting 15 of 23 from the field (.652) overall (including eight from distance) to outscore the Bulls 38-17 to run away with a 125-104 victory. For the game Toronto shot an impressive 19 of 48 from distance. Miles led the charge with 27 points for the Canadians, while Justin Holiday notched 17 for Chicago.