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Play-in Preview: Raptors host Bulls in one-game showdown

It’s not quite as dramatic as Vince Carter and the Nets in 2007, but the Raptors will host former Raptor DeMar DeRozan and the Bulls in a loser-goes-home play-in game.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

16 years ago, a former Toronto Raptors star came to town on an opposing team and knocked the Raptors out of the postseason.

On Wednesday night, another former Toronto Raptors star will try and do the same.

Sure, DeMar DeRozan’s Chicago Bulls playing the Raptors in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament doesn’t feel quite the same as Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets coming to town in 2007. After a decade of sustained success (Tampa aside) and 48 wins last season, this has been a disappointing Raptors season and you could argue that a flame-out in the Play-In Tournament is exactly what this underachieving team deserves. Whereas 2007 was a massive, and unexpected, success; making the postseason was an overachievement in itself, but winning the division and having homecourt in a best-of-seven series was literally unprecedented for the Toronto Raptors.

Let’s just say the vibes were very, very different. That decade of success has led to heightened expectations — expectations the Raptors fell far short of this season.

But the Play-In Tournament represents one last chance to turn it around and go on a run.

Let’s break down the matchup and see what the Raptors’ chances are to defeat the Bulls and advance to play the loser of the 7-8 matchup.

The Details

The ninth-seeded Toronto Raptors will host the 10th-seeded Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, April 12 at 7:00 p.m.

The winner will play the loser of the 7-8 game; we’ll know the results of that one on Tuesday, April 11, when the Atlanta Hawks visit the Miami Heat at 7:30 p.m.

The Numbers

The Raptors won the season series against the Bulls 2-1, with the most recent, a 104-98 Raptors win, coming on February 28. Cumulatively, the Raptors outscored the Bulls 314-313 in the three games.

Neither team is a great three-point shooting team: the Bulls took 30 per game vs. the Raptors, hitting 36%; the Raptors took 36, hitting 32%.

On the boards, both teams are also pretty weak, though the winning team in each of the three games won the battle on the boards (both cumulatively and in defensive rebound rate).

If the Raptors have any advantage, it is in the possession game. The Raps forced the Bulls into 57 total turnovers in the three games, while only committing 32 themselves. That in turn led to the Raptors being +43 in shot attempts over the three games, and the Raptors averaged 22.3 points off turnovers (compared to 15.7 for the Bulls).

If the Bulls have any advantage, it’s that they are, perhaps surprisingly, a better defensive team than the Raptors (5th in defensive rating, compared to 13th for the Raps). How can a team employing DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic be better than a Nick Nurse-led Raptors squad? Well, a healthy Alex Caruso and a third of the season with Patrick Beverley, combined with the Raptors’ as-yet-unexplained decline on defense (perhaps exhausted after four years of the Nick Nurse scramble methodology) has flipped this script.

Overall net rating is also about even — the Raptors finished 12th in the league, the Bulls, 13th. All these numbers, plus the fact that the teams finished 9th and 10th and were separated by only one win, should tell you that they’re pretty even, if mediocre, and this game is anyone’s for the taking.

Backcourt Matchup

The Raptors only really start one guard, Fred VanVleet; you can argue who the ostensible two-guard is, either O.G. Anunoby (he’s shooting the three like a two-guard) or Scottie Barnes (who brings the ball up and initiates the offense like a guard). But let’s focus on the VanVleet matchup for now.

VanVleet enters the postseason on a terrible shooting slump; he’s shooting just 24% from downtown and 32% overall in his past six games. He also injured his thumb on his shooting hand last week against the Boston Celtics.

In three games against the Bulls, VanVleet scored 20 ppg on just 38% shooting, and had a ghastly 1-for-9 from downtown in the Raptors’ win on February 28. That one is notable because that Raps-Bulls game was the only game of the three in which Patrick Beverley played.

Yes, the Bulls now feature the always-annoying and occasionally-dangerous and slightly-unhinged Patrick Beverley. Beverley has started all 21 games he’s played since joining the Bulls after a post-deadline buyout, and although his numbers aren’t much to look at — 6 points, 5 boards, 3.4 assists on 40/32/53 shooting splits — I don’t think Beverley’s game is really measured in stats, is it? He’s a menace on defense (an overrated one, sure, but a pest nonetheless, who gets the benefit of the doubt from officials) and his irrational confidence is infectious. The Bulls are 12-9 with Beverley and have played with a different swagger since his arrival.

Joining Beverley in the Bulls backcourt is Alex Caruso, who is an even better defender than Beverley but is generally able to play defense without injuring his opponents. Caruso is a pest both on-ball and in the passing lanes, and whether Caruso or Beverley guards VanVleet, steady Freddy will be in tough.

Which is why it’s imperative for the Raps to take advantage of any matchups where they have a size advantage. If Beverley or Caruso is matched up with Barnes, Barnes should be able to initiate the offense by passing over his defender, by operating in the high post, and by posting up as well. Barnes has done a solid job this season putting pressure on the rim and he’ll need to do more of that in any mismatches. If it’s Anunoby, he’ll need to use his size to bully the smaller guards.

Advantage: Even (but I’m leaning Bulls if VanVleet is feeling the thumb injury)

Wing Matchups

O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam vs. DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine is a heck of a matchup.

Speed and scoring punch has to go to the Bulls. But size and defense goes to the Raptors. Playmaking is about even. Neither Siakam or DeRozan is a three-point threat; Anunoby and LaVine shoot 39% and 38%, respectively, from three-point range.

Generally speaking I’d lean towards the offensive threat in a single-game elimination. Defense usually wins out over the course of a 7-game series, but on one random night? I’m gonna take the scorers…

… except. I’ve seen enough DeRozan postseason no-shows — in this building, no less! — and that means I can’t pick the Bulls in this one. In Toronto’s two wins, Anunoby — primarily guarding DeRozan — finished +16 and +24. On the other end, DeRozan shot the ball decently well, but he had a heck of time getting to his spots. He only averaged 8.7 shots per game in the three Raptors matchups; that’s 9 shots below his season average. Regardless of what Siakam and LaVine get up to, anything close to those kind of numbers has to tilt the matchup in Toronto’s favour.

Advantage: Raptors

Centre Matchup

Nikola Vucevic has had some nightmares games against Toronto, including in the postseason. Back in 2019, Marc Gasol and the Raps held him to 11.2 points on 36% shooting (23% from downtown) and 8 rebounds. (His averages that season where 21 and 12 on 52% shooting (36% from downtown).

But! This isn’t the 2019 Magic, and Jakob Poeltl isn’t Marc Gasol. This season, Vooch averaged 19 points on 49% shooting versus the Raptors, and had 23 on 9-for-14 shooting (4-for-6 from downtown) in the one matchup in which Poeltl played. He’s also just been petter in the playoff since 2019; in 10 postseason games with the Magic and Bulls since 2020, Vooch is averaging 24 and 12 on 48% shooting (36% from downtown).

So it really feels like the Bulls have the edge here.

And yet… even though numbers-wise, Vucevic will likely win the matchup, something about Jak’s fit with the Raptors gives me confidence. They have — for the most part — just looked more complete and more connected with Jak starting alongside Siakam, Anunoby, Barnes and VanVleet. And the Raptors should be able to repeatedly target Vooch in the pick-and-roll, matching him against Barnes and Siakam.

Vucevic might have a larger impact on the scoresheet, but Jak won’t have to do nearly as much to still be a net-positive.

Advantage: Even

Bench Matchup

Neither of these teams are particularly deep, and both benches are streaky. You really never know what you’ll get from either one.

I suspect the both teams will rely heavily on their starters, and throw Trent and Ayo Dosunmu in is as the sixth men. But how much are really expecting of Coby White, Javonte Green, Precious Achiuwa, and Chris Boucher? Dosunmo and Boucher strike me as the wild cards — both bring high energy, and either one could have a massive game… either one could also be all but invisible.

I really want to give the Raptors the advantage here. If the Raptors had been healthy and had Jakob Poeltl for the full season, I truly believe Trent would win Sixth Man of the Year; he’s clearly the best bench player on either team. But Trent is still coming back from injury, and the bench behind him has been so awful for so many long stretches, that I just have no confidence in them. And if they can’t at least play even, that might mean extra long run for VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam, and while that’s expected in a one-game playoff, if this game gets into crunch time and those guys are pulling on their shorts… yikes.

Advantage: Bulls

DraftKings Odds favour the Raptors

Our friends at DraftKings have the Raptors as the favourite here, with the money line at -200; the Bulls are currently the underdog at +170. Given how even these teams are, I suspect that’s mostly just the homecourt factor — though as someone who attended the majority of the Raptors’ home games this year, I have to say the crowd hasn’t been as energetic as past seasons. Obviously the team’s lacklustre play had something to do with that! And hey — the Bulls had the 12th-best road record in the NBA (18-23), while the Raptors were in a three-way tie for ninth-best home record (27-14). Again, that’s pretty close to even!

The prediction

With all of that said, this one is really tough to call. I’m basically going off my gut here. And given that the Raptors have disappointed me at pretty much every turn this season, that they had many, many chances to take advantage of a lacklustre Eastern Conference and move up to 7th or 8th (even 6th was in play for a while) and failed to play with any urgency… I have a hard time picking them in a single-game elimination.

The Bulls defeat the Raptors, 117-111.

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