[Thanks to Easy Eis for today's game preview -yfbb]
Woah, where did all the time go? Even as they begin their 29th NBA contest of the regular season, the Chicago Bulls are already over a third of the way through their schedule! Tonight, the Bulls return to the United Center to face off against the Toronto Raptors, currently ranked 4th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 19-12 and winners of seven of their last ten games.
Now, I'll be the first to admit, I did not predict a fortuitous future for the Raptors this season. In fact, if you read my piece about why I believe(d) all five Central Division teams would make the postseason, you may have noted I had the Raptors slotted to miss the playoffs. Despite the fact that the Raptors finished third last season in offensive efficiency rating, their defense that ranked near the bottom third of the league still had me concerned. I also did not think that they made enough of an improvement in free agency over the summer; as their signings of DeMarre Carroll, Bismack Biyombo, and Corey Joseph don't exactly leap off the page.
Well, despite the fact that Carroll has had some injury issues early on in the year (he will play tonight but may not start), the Raptors have gotten off to an impressive start. Despite the fact that they play at one of the slowest paces in the NBA and rank 27th in assist ratio, the Raptors rank in the top ten for both offensive and defensive efficiency in addition to rebounding rate. These guys are a well-rounded team that get good production out of just about everybody in their ten/eleven man rotation all the way down to Lucas Nogueira. However, a closer examination of their best players' shooting stats may leave some perplexed as to how the team has been so successful thus far. Three out of the top four scorers on the Raptors roster (DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Carroll) fail to shoot above 45% from the field, and the fourth player in that statistic is Jonas Valanciunas (returning tonight from a hand injury), whose 55% shooting is explained by his abundance of attempts in the paint. Given this, it will be interesting to see how their backcourt fares tonight against Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, the latter of whom saw Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea knock in a career high seven threes against him on Saturday.
So what can the Bulls do to find success against this group? Some defensive play type statistics may hold the answers, but what the Bulls definitely should not do is run post-up plays on offense. Not just Taj Gibson as user from the window to luol pointed out in their Christmas eve piece, but everyone on the Bulls. The Raptors are the very best post-defense team in the NBA this season, surrendering points in this area a mere 38.2% of the time, and teams have recognized this as they have the lowest frequency of post-ups run against them in the association at just 5.2%. The Raptors are also particularly adept at defending off-ball cuts and pick & roll ball handlers, ranking 2nd in the league in defending both categories with scoring frequencies of 56% and 33%, respectively. Though we likely won't see the Bulls completely stay away from running pick & roll sets, it certainly won't be the best option for them if they want to get Rose and Butler going on offense.
However, what will likely get them going is what many Bulls fans have been clamoring for Rose to do more and Butler to do far less (late in games, at least): isolation sets. The Raptors are in the 27th percentile for defending isolation plays across the NBA, surrendering points from these types of plays 43% of the time. Fred Hoiberg's new offense hasn't allowed for much isolation this season given the emphasis placed on ball movement, and this is reflected in the fact that Butler and Rose have only run isolation sets for themselves on a combined 113 possessions this season. I know it goes against the core of what Hoiball is all about, but if this team truly is all about investing in analytics, then at least for this game just let Rose and Butler go to work by themselves. Besides, we all want to see the two biggest stars from both teams compete against one another for most of the game anyway, and I'm not just saying that because I have tickets tonight!
One other area in which they can do some damage is on hand-off plays. While the Bulls are currently the best at defending these types of plays in the NBA (surrendering points just 33% of the time), the Raptors rank in about the 7th percentile while giving up points on such plays 43% of the time. Although scores directly off of hand-offs aren't particularly common, if the Bulls need a crunch time basket it would certainly be in their best interest to have some sort of hand-off play ready to go. At the very least, it would be better than Rose being forced to take a five second violation at the end of the game as he did on Saturday night.
It's going to be a very competitive game from the opening tip, but if the Bulls can force the Raptors to play outside their comfort zone by kicking up the pace and running isolation sets for their best ball-handlers, I don't see any reason why they can't pick up a win this evening. As disheartening as the end of the game against the Mavericks may have been on Saturday, there were still numerous positive takeaways as Ricky O'Donnell thankfully pointed out, on top of the fact that they managed an impressive win against the Thunder on Christmas. Since the losing stretch that featured Butler publicly calling out Hoiberg, the Bulls have shown some good signs of life and I believe that these will manifest themselves into a nice victory tonight.
Tip is at 8 ET/7 CT on Comcast SportsNet as well as NBA TV. Mike Dunleavy and Joakim Noah are both still out.
Also, rest in peace to Harlem Globetrotters legendary member Meadowlark Lemon. I imagine he will receive a moment of silence prior to tonight's game given his status as a basketball hall-of-famer and the Globetrotters' roots in Chicago. To younger fans/readers, educate yourself about this wonderful and often hilarious man and team if you haven't already.