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Bulls vs. Raptors game preview: Can the 'next men up' slay some dinos with backcourt still on ice?

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The Bulls and Raptors battle for the third seed.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight's game could be a big one. As our Bulls get into the regular season's stretch run, it would be nice to see our core guys getting healthy. On that front, in a bit of good news, Taj Gibson will be returning this eve! And Jimmy Butler could be back as early as tomorrow night in our tilt against the Pistons! And... and.. Derrick Rose is "maybe even slightly ahead of schedule" (but if he's not scheduled to take the court until after this weekend, that'd be just about 4 weeks after his February 27th meniscus repair surgery -- or the conservative end of the "4-6 weeks" originally predicted meaning.. it'd just be on schedule, not ahead of schedule)!

The big question in the back of everyone's minds, in relation to Taj's return specifically, would probably be, "WHAT OF NIKO?!?" How much of a hit will stud rookie Nikola Mirotic (the People's Rookie of the Year!)'s minutes and touches per game averages take? Since Taj Gibson went down, Mirotic has been averaging 14.8 field goal attempts and 32.3 minutes per game (plus a slick stat line of 20.8 points and 8.2 boards per game), huge leaps from his season averages of 6.9 FGA and 19.3 minutes per. He's been scoring like gangbusters with the extended time, notching 25 points and 9 boards on 8-of-15 shooting from the floor in a much-needed shellacking of the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday. Their bigs just had no answer for him, because Niko is a legit stretch-four and drew plodding Pacers big man David West away from the middle.

Granted, Mirotic's 3-point shooting isn't quite where we'd want it to be just yet, but opponents still respect him from deep, unlike the other guys logging most of the minutes at the 4, Taj Gibson or Joakim Noah; Mike Dunleavy Jr. plays some 4 in certain line-ups, so he'd be the Bulls' other stretch-four, but he doesn't have nearly the handle of Niko. Here's hoping that Mirotic, who very much seems to need a certain amount of attempts and time to get into a playing rhythm at this junior stage in his career, doesn't deep a second below 25 minutes a night over the ensuing months (regular season and playoffs). He may very well be the only reason Chicago is 4-6 over its last ten games, and not 2-8 or something similarly depressing. A 2-8 record sans Niko would have totally been in play (search your feelings, you know it in your heart to be true), despite Thibs' somewhat overinflated issues with Mirotic's defense.

Every game counts now, and this game counts double, since it affects the win-loss column of the both the Bulls AND one of their chief Eastern Conference mid-tier foes, the Toronto Raptors. Currently, the Bulls (41-28) are the 4-seed in the East. The Raptors (41-27), are 3rd. A Bulls victory tonight at the UC would cause a flip-flop of playoff seeds. Even if Washington were to beat the Clippers tonight and the Raptors were to lose to us, giving those teams an identical 41-28 record, Toronto owns the tiebreaker by virtue of having won their season series against Washington already. Point being -- Chicago, Toronto, and Washington are in a dead heat for the third, fourth and fifth seeds, all teams having had some miserable runs of late (Toronto is also 4-6 in their last ten games, while Washington seems to have finally recovered from a 5-game losing streak at the end of February).

I would take a healthy Bulls team against the field in this year's Eastern Conference, but whether or not Rose and Butler will return in time to find a little rotational cohesion in the playoffs is anybody's guess (we've established the new timelines that GarPaxdorf is promising, but every body is different). Thus, the ideal bracket for a banged-up Bulls team would put us in the 4/5 slot, so that we could face (probably) Atlanta in the ensuing round and (probably) Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavs are getting that 2-seed, by hook or by crook. They're playing their best ball of the season right now, and they still aren't even maximizing Kevin Love's potential fit in their offense! LeBron James's nagging knee troubles, if they persist, would throw a wrench into everything, but if he gets enough time off now he should be fine for the off-season, and now that Kyrie Irving is scoring like an NBA 2K Kyrie, Cleveland has enough ammunition to survive a week or two sans LBJ.

ANYWAY. Before nabbing a triple double earlier this week, Kyle Lowry had looked overwhelmed and mildly worn down from logging significant time as the #1 and de facto #2 scoring options in Toronto's offense, during the extended absence of 2014 All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is back now, and has finally rounded into form. Lowry, too, was looking better -- until he too got snake-bit by the injury bug! The Raptors' pit bull point guard, their undeniable best player (an All-Star starter this season in the East, although Justin Bieber probably had a lot to do with that), suffered a lower back contusion in the Raptors' Wednesday turn against Minnesota. He is a game-time decision tonight, and that could have a monstrous impact on the outcome of this contest. DeMar DeRozan, so great at getting to the free-throw line, is not particularly renowned as a shot creator. Greivis Vasquez, Lowry's back-up, is a capable facilitator (and certainly better than Aaron Brooks/Kirk Hinrich/E'Twaun Moore), but he's not nearly the defender or consistent scorer Lowry is. In fact, this season, Vasquez's shooting percentage in the lane -- i.e. 3-10 feet of the basket -- currently stands at a very, very meh 36.8%, 0.1% away from tying his career low shooting mark within that range, where the 28 year-old shot 42.4% as recently as two seasons ago.

We can only hope that Aaron Brooks capitalizes on the 6'6" Vasquez's lack of quickness and exploits the Venezualan guard's shooting shortcomings, and that Thibs keeps giving the much-taller-than-Brooks E'Twaun Moore some legit burn at the 1 and 2 at the expense of the Captain's minutes. That's all a bit in flux now, though. On Wednesday, Moore only saw 6:14 minutes of action, a lame drop from the : he had been averaging since his career night against the OKC Thunder. Yes, fine, Kirk had this one cool sequence. But that was it, damn it! THERE ARE NO MORE INTANGIBLES LEFT TO CLING TO WITH HIM! Kirk's minutes, by the way, seem to be the one irrational basketball decision Thibs and management are on the same page about.

The best thing about Toronto-when-healthy, from Toronto's perspective? Long-limbed depth on the wing with a knack for drawing contact, especially between their most-used quartet of shooting guard DeRozan, starting small forward Terrence Ross, slow-but-long-for-his-position Vasquez and the demented SG/SF/PF James Johnson. I kind of wish these Bulls had this newest incarnation of Johnson right now -- not the one we drafted, of course, but the Energizer Bunny multi-positional defender and cutter that Toronto has. The Raptors, thanks in no small part to Lowry's contributions (on the season, he's averaging 18.1 points, 6.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and shooting 80.4% in 4.5 free throw attempts per game), have the fourth-best offensive rating (104.5 points scored per game) in the entire league. Of course, Lowry's not totally healthy right now, and DeRozan's scoring has notably fallen off this season.

The best thing about Toronto-when-healthy, from an opponent's perspective? That'd be on the other side of the ball, where they rank 23rd in opponent points scored per game (101.3). Toronto reps the least intimidating big man rotation in the East's top 5! The 22 year-old Jonas Valanciunas, their still-developing third-year 6'11" Lithuanian center, has certainly improved this year (averaging a decent 12.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 57.3% field goal shooting and 79.2% free throw shooting in only 26.2 minutes of play a night), but his defense still isn't where Raps coach Dwane Casey would I'm sure want it to be. Amir Johnson (no relation to James, by the way), their 6'9" power forward, has taken a confounding step backwards this year on many fronts. He may only be 27, but he is certainly an old 27, having shuttled between the D-League and the NBA since 2005. Their third big is Patrick Patterson, who I always confuse with Jason Thompson because they're both pretty nondescript. And don't even get me started on Psycho T. Good luck trying to contain the newly whole four-man Bulls big man rotation (sorry, Nazr). I'm predicting a Bulls win, with or without Lowry -- even if he plays, he's not nearly going to be at 100%, and the Bulls really DO have more than enough to win with this time, thanks to the emergence of Mirotic and the return of Taj. We're winning this game.

Tip: 7 p.m. CST, WGN-TV/ESPN AM-1000