7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Raptors -6.5, Over/Under: 201.5
A pair of teams traveling towards very different climaxes meet tonight North of the Border, as the Toronto Raptors host the Chicago Bulls from Air Canada Centre in Ontario, Canada. What began as a campaign ripe with cautious optimism has spiraled into a dumpster fire for the Bulls (33-37, 10th in Eastern Conference), who have now lost eight of their last eleven games, and twelve out of their last twenty-one overall. The offseason acquisitions of Dwyane Wade (18.6 PTS, 43.4% FG, 4.5 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.5 STL) and Rajon Rondo (7.2 PTS, 39.5% FG, 4.9 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.3 STL) have not garnered the desired results, particularly now that the former has been shut down for the remainder of the term after suffering a small fracture and sprain in his right elbow, while the oft-criticized latter has been relegated to the Bench. Then again, many predicted this fate for Fred Hoiberg’s charges, who as they came together last Summer were viewed as a proverbial hodgepodge of pieces that didn’t complement each other. Basically, these big names that were brought in were done more so for marketing purposes, not for winning games. And it’s with that said that the plethora of All-Star appearances between the likes of Wade, Rondo, and Jimmy Butler (23.3 PTS, 44.2% FG, 6.2 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.9 STL) have unsurprisingly added up to one of the least-efficient offensive teams in the league, which is rather jarring given Hoiberg’s diverse acumen on the particular end of the court. That’s the problem in the Windy City, folks, for the Head Coach was poached away from his Alma Matta at Iowa State to foster some much needed growth offensively, after years of his predecessor Tom Thibodeau’s dogmatic (yet ultimately more successful) approach. However, there just hasn’t been enough progression on that front; Chicago has averaged just 101.8 points (24th Overall) on 44.0% shooting from the field (27th Overall), including 47.8% from within the three-point arc (29th Overall) and 32.4% beyond it (29th Overall). There’s a significant lack of quality perimeter shooters on this roster, with the few that were capable of stretching defenses either mired in a season-long slump (Nikola Mirotic shooting a career-worst 30.5% from downtown) or traded away in search of future assets (Doug McDermott sent to Oklahoma City). Without that precious spacing, opposing defenses have effectively closed the lanes towards the rim, making it that much harder for the likes of Butler, Wade, and Rondo to do what they do best, which is penetrate. Think about it, only two teams have attempted more two-point field goals than the Bulls, yet they remain the second least-efficient team in that regard. Ironically, the only reason that this team has continued to cling to the fringes of the East’s Eighth Seed is their performance on Defense, as traces of Thibodeau’s fingerprints continue to linger on this end of the floor. The Bulls have yielded 103.1 points (11th Overall) on 46.0% shooting from the field (20th Overall), including 50.5% from within the three-point arc (20th Overall) and 35.5% beyond it (11th Overall), while leading the league in rebounding at 46.1 boards a night. Furthermore, they don’t commit many fouls, relinquishing the second-fewest free-throws (14.4) and free-throw attempts (18.7) in the NBA, and permitting a free-throw on a scant 16.7% of their opponents’ field goal attempts (2nd Overall). This was the case in Saturday’s 95-86 victory over the Utah Jazz, where the visitor’s slow, plodding style played right into their hands; Chicago held the blossoming young Western contender to 38.3% shooting, including 7-of-25 from downtown (28.0%), with nearly as many turnovers (fourteen) and assists (fifteen). The hosts overcame a slow start (sixteen points in First Quarter), but finished on fire, outscoring the Jazz 34-22 in the final stanza, with the aforementioned Butler leading the way with twenty-three points on 8-of-18 shooting (44.4%), four rebounds, seven assists, three steals, and a pair of blocks, while Bobby Portis (6.0 PTS, 47.1% FG, 4.1 REB) posted an inspired performance off the Bench with a career-high twenty-two points on 10-of-13 shooting (76.9%), and five rebounds. In the end, it’s safe to assume that the ensuing offseason will once again consist of a great deal of change in terms of personnel AND the Coaching Staff, as the Front Office needs to give Hoiberg the pieces he needs to do his job or ultimately go in a different direction.
Meanwhile, the Raptors (41-29, 4th in Eastern Conference) too have effectively shut their own All-Star Guard down for the remainder of the Regular Season, though that decision was made in an effort to get Kyle Lowry (22.8 PTS, 46.3% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.4 STL) healthy for the impending Playoffs. Despite being a major component in Toronto’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the veteran was wildly inconsistent while playing through some nagging injuries, which Dwayne Casey and his Staff would prefer not to happen again this Spring. Initially expected to miss four to five weeks after removing some loose bodies from his right wrist, Lowry could feasibly be out even longer after being shut down back in late February. Again, the Raptors want to make sure this guy is fit for the postseason, particularly given how much they have invested in not just him, but in the supporting cast around him as well. Perhaps no team was more active at the Trade Deadline than these guys, who acquired both Serge Ibaka (14.2 PTS, 45.6% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 1.6 BLK) and P.J. Tucker (5.1 PTS, 39.4% FG, 4.8 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.2 STL) in an attempt to bolster their ranks so that they could better combat the Cleveland Cavaliers, who eliminated them in last year’s Playoffs. Both players are physically imposing presences on the defensive end of the court, while Ibaka provides a much-needed scoring threat both in the interior and from the perimeter to boot. Since acquiring the pair, the Raptors have gone 8-5, but keep in mind that their integration has also coincided with Lowry’s absence, making for an interesting acclimation period when the 30-year old Guard eventually returns. Will they have enough time to get on the same page before the Playoffs begin? Only time will tell… What we can tell though, is that it appears that Toronto has found their legs without their floor general, winning three out of their last four outings, with the most recent a 116-91 drubbing of the Indiana Pacers Sunday Night. They jumped on the visiting side early, taking a 62-43 lead into Halftime which they would never come close to relinquishing, putting on an offensive clinic that should get the fan base excited as all five starters scored in double-figures, while the Bench added another thirty-four points. All-Star Guard DeMar DeRozan (26.8 PTS, 46.4% FG, 5.2 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.1 STL) scored a team-high twenty-two points on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4%), while the aforementioned Ibaka added another sixteen points on 7-of-11 shooting (63.6%), including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc (66.6%). As a team, Casey’s charges shot a stellar 49.5% from the field, including 12-of-27 from three (44.4%), where they outscored the Pacers by a whopping eighteen points. Furthermore, they hammered Indiana on the glass (51-33), while compiling a healthy twenty-five assists, with six different players logging at least a pair of helpers. As we stated earlier, this team has the potential to be a very intriguing one once Lowry returns to the mix, for over the last four years Management has done a tremendous job of meticulously cultivating this roster, adding pieces that complement the ones they already possess. Indeed, their counterparts in Chicago should take some pointers from these guys, for the Raptors rank among the league’s top-third in a wealth of categories on both ends of the court. Offensively, they average 106.9 points (9th Overall) on 46.1% shooting from the field (12th Overall), including 50.1% from within the three-point arc (16th Overall) and 36.3% beyond it (14th Overall), while on the defensive end they permit just 103.1 points (10th Overall) on 45.1% shooting (11th Overall), including 49.7% inside the arc (10th Overall) and 35.7% beyond it (13th Overall). They also enjoy a very healthy differential in turnovers, forcing 14.7 (9th Overall) opposed to committing just 12.4 (4th Overall). The only real weakness this group has is they don’t distribute the ball well at all, averaging a league-low 18.3 assists, but they make up for it with their knack for getting to the Charity Stripe; Toronto has attempted 25.0 free-throws a game (5th Overall) and made 20.1 of them (3rd Overall), going to the Line on an NBA-best 23.8% of their Field Goal Attempts.