Tonight at the United Center, we'll witness a match-up of two teams trending in different directions. The Raptors' prospects are looking up heading into 2016. DeMarre Carroll returned in a limited roll in Saturday's blowout win over the Bucks, and Jonas Valanciunas is on track to play for the first time since November 20th.
Despite missing those two critical starters, the Raptors are 7-3 in their last 10 and look to be in the upper tier of Eastern Conference two-seed contenders along with Atlanta and Miami.
Chicago on the other hand, is a team that's been in a funky haze all season. The 16-12 record doesn't look bad, but it also probably fails to match the talent on the roster from top-to-bottom. Offensively, Fred Hoiberg's up-tempo system hasn't caught on, and the Bulls are stumbling along at a 99.3 points-per-100-possessions rate - good for 27th in the league, and off-setting any positive vibes that can be taken from having the league's fifth-best defense.
And then there's Derrick Rose. We're past dreaming about him one day re-gaining his MVP form. At this point we might just have to accept that Rose is simply a detriment to his team. Sporting the highest usage of any Bulls regular, Rose boasts an embarrassing 43.0 True Shooting Percentage, and Chicago is actually 7.2 points-per-100 better with Aaron Brooks on the court than they are with Rose.
The disappointments in Chicago don't stop there. Joakim Noah is hurt now, and was averaging an uncharacteristic 4.5 points and 8.8 rebounds on a 42.8 TS% in a reserve roll before getting dinged; Nikola Mirotic's sample-size of unremarkable shooting continues to grow (38.6 FG%, 34.3 3FG% this year); and Doug McDermott is a massive minus. Even with Jimmy Butler doing his thing, there are too many weak links on Chicago's roster to allow for any sort of consistency.
Toronto will look to take advantage of the Bulls' depressed state tonight, and head home with a 2-0 record on their post-Christmas road trip. Here are three things to watch for in tonight's game:
Valanciunas makes his return
According to multiple reports, Valanciunas will make his return after sitting for 17 games with a Kobe-induced broken bone in his hand. It will be interesting to see how he's utilized in his first game back. Valanciunas has always been hulking and rather slow, so it would be unfair to expect him to play a full complement of minutes while he's still regaining game shape.
DeMarre Carroll played just 18 minutes in his own return from injury on Saturday. That's probably an indicator that Dwane Casey will play it slow when incorporating Valanciunas back into the rotation - as is this tweet from Ryan Wolstat:
Valanciunas likely won't play huge minutes per Casey with Biyombo and Scola playing well at the five.
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) December 27, 2015
Still, it will be nice to have Valanciunas' dependable offense back in Casey's tool box. Bismack Biyombo has dazzled at times while filling in as the starting center, but his offensive rating remains remains the lowest among Raptors regulars. It will be nice to have an offensive threat to set screens and pull defenders away from Kyle Lowry, who all too often has had to wiggle out of double-teams while teams ignore a rolling Biyombo.
The New Rotation
There was some good that came out of the Raptors having to survive using a precariously short rotation without Carroll and Valanciunas. With two starters down, Toronto was forced to squeeze contributions out of all corners of the roster. Some things remain unchanged of course: Anthony Bennett did nothing to prove in spot minutes that he's worthy of more, and Delon Wright and Normal Powell are still not quite ready to contribute regularly.
But the Raptors did get surprising production from Lucas Nogueira, Biyombo and Terrence Ross that should earn them more rope with Casey going forward. Ross' improved play is going to be particularly important. As the team's third wing and one of its best shooters when he's rolling, Ross is going to be crucial when it comes to preserving Carroll and DeMar DeRozan over the last 52 games of the season. The better Ross plays, the more Casey can afford to give his starting wings a break. If the team is forced to revert back to giving Ross less than 20 minutes while Carroll and DeRozan approach forty as they did before Carroll got hurt, Toronto is certain to deal with the injury bug once again.
The DeRozan-Butler match-up
DeRozan has carried the Raptors over the last 10 games or so. Lowry has still been good, but he's come down from the stratosphere he was occupying in November. Since December 7th, DeRozan has put up a stellar 25.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 50 percent shooting. It's been one of the best stretches of his career.
Tonight though, the Raptors may have to rely on other sources of heat. DeRozan has always been susceptible to poor showings against the league's most potent wing defenders, and Butler has been exhibit A. Last year, some of DeRozan's worst games against Eastern Conference teams came against Chicago. In three games matched up with Butler, DeRozan averaged 19, 3 and 3 on an ugly 36 percent from the field.
The inability to be match-up proof is one of the bugaboos that stands out to the many people who remain wary of giving DeRozon big money long term. A continuation of his fantastic play despite a difficult match-up would be another obstacle overcome in DeRozan's prove-it season.
Where to Watch: 8pm EST, Sportsnet One