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The BlogABull play-in game 1 preview: Bulls vs. Raptors
one of the least-anticipated postseason games ever, but it will be played anyway
This #9 vs #10 matchup really isn’t a play-IN game, because the winner doesn’t get ‘in’ anything. If the Bulls beat the Raptors on Wednesday night they just get the right to face the Heat in Miami on Friday for another single-elimination contest.
So I guess this first one is more like a “play-on” game.
I won’t go into what merely being in this situation means big-picture for the franchise. We will have all offseason to do that, and AK will poorly and infuriatingly spin it regardless. I was all-in (or at least as all-in as I can be for mediocrity) when the new-look Patrick Beverley-led Bulls had a chance to win enough at the end of the season to face the Celtics in the first round. Now, after a couple reality-check losses and being faced with the best case scenario being becoming a stomp-ee of the Bucks, again, it’s even harder to get excited.
Even so, it is technically a postseason, win-or-go-home game with some rivalry attached, that’s…something! The play-in games last night were entertaining and high stakes even with some pretty mid teams involved.
As for predicting what will happen in this Bulls game versus the Raptors: This is single game elimination, so it’s hard to really formulate any assessment with predictive qualities. This game may come down to something as fluky as whichever team hits a higher percentage of wide open 3-pointers, or a single clutch turnover on a 50/50 offensive foul call.
One thing I tried to do is only take evidence from games where the current version of the team was playing. Both squads had significant additions to their starting lineup in the final third of the season, being impactful less so for the caliber of that new player but because of the gaping hole they were filling. We know how Beverley, who isn’t even shooting well, has helped the Bulls at point guard since his first game on February 23rd. The Raptors similarly had pretty much no center on the team until they acquired Jakob Poeltl on February 10th.
I also tossed out the final two games for both teams, because that was fake.
(also, apologies to the Poeltl family for forgetting an ‘l’ in his name in these screenshots…I guess you could say I took an ‘l’! )
Wow, instead of a play-on game, maybe this should be considered the caliber of a conference finals clash!
Both teams playing this well to achieve such high ratings on both ends of the court requires context. Obviously, it’s a small sample. If you simply remove the Bulls 40-point blowout of the Nets that first game after the All-Star break, their net rating goes all the way down to +2.8. And though the final two games were really fake, all of NBA March is kinda fake. You have quality opponents resting guys, or outright-tanking teams, where you can accumulate some great stats.
But I spent all this time on NBA dot com filters to get those stats, so I can’t in good conscience say to throw them out! Just don’t take them as absolute, either.
The Bulls have a deserved reputation of having no shooting. But they have been better in this stretch than Toronto. And the Raptors are similarly styled in their shot profile, so at least the Bulls don’t have that inherent ‘math problem’ with them as they do with many other opponents who can double up three-point attempts on them.
Despite there being more and more games of evidence supporting this, I still think the Bulls 3-point defense is a mirage, or at least exaggerated against teams who can't move the ball. But that mirage can sustain for another 48 minutes.
You may be noticing that these teams are very similar. They are kinda crappy at the skilled parts of the game, but less crappy at being scrappy.
The Bulls, with their inherently limited rim protection, really are aggressive at trying to force turnovers behind Caruso and Beverley. And with their inherently limited offense they try to at least limit their own turnovers. They execute this strategy at a top-10 level on both sides of the ball.
But…the Raptors are even better at this. They are actually the best team in basketball when it comes to limiting their own turnovers.
One clearer displayed superiority for the Raptors is offensive rebounding. As Will Gottlieb at CHGO pointed out in his excellent preview (really…I could’ve just linked his it’s that good and comprehensive), the Raptors are not just better than the Bulls but elite at this:
Not only were the Raptors the second-best offensive rebounding team in the league, they had the highest (22) and third-highest (19) offensive rebounding games against the Bulls this year. They’re long, athletic and relentless.
And the Bulls, though having an overall very good defense this season (and in this PatBev stretch), has done so with a catch:
To prevent open threes, the Bulls are in constant motion, scrambling out to shooters and rotating around the perimeter. Against the best ball-moving teams, the Bulls have to cover a ton of ground, but their momentum is taking them toward the perimeter, not toward the basket. That means they are susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds.
Another caveat to showing any stats for predictive purposes is the games missed by players on both teams in this stretch. This iteration of the Bulls have been remarkably healthy this season, with DeRozan missing 1 contest and Alex Caruso missing 5, though Caruso is extremely important.
Meanwhile the Raptors have had more injuries: Gary Trent Jr. missed 9 games, all of O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Precious Achiuwa missed 3, and Scottie Barnes missed 2.
But Toronto looks to own a clean injury sheet for this game, and here’s how their rotation looked in the last game they all played.
(I know, they rested starters for the last two games, they’ll be out of rhythm!)
The Bulls have had a consistent rotation this whole time, with some lesser factors like the backup center spot alternating between big (Andre Drummond) and small (Derrick Jones), plus Javonte Green being pretty much out of consideration as he hasn’t fully recovered from midseason knee surgery.
There was some speculation that the Bulls would change up their starting lineup and put actual-forward Patrick Williams in place of Caruso, but that doesn’t look to be happening. I understand the concept, trying to match the Raptors size. But, to me, if you’re going to tout a player for the league’s All-Defensive team, he better at least start for your 40-win-ass squad.
The biggest advantage the Bulls have in this game is their duo of elite shotmakers, DeRozan and LaVine. Michael Walton II at Bulls Confidential highlighted this factor as DeRozan, the former longtime Raptor, has struggled against them this season.
Most of the NBA teams that employ some sort of pressure against DeRozan do so in a way that allows him to either find open teammates or get to the free throw line by drawing contact against overzealous traps and double-teams.
But not against Nick Nurse’s Raptors.
This regular season, DeRozan has averaged 14.0 points and 3.7 assists per game over three games against the Raptors.
The most shocking part however, is easily his field goal attempts. Toronto, through a mixture of creative coach and long defenders, make life so difficult for DeRozan that he only averages 8.7 field goal attempts per game against their defense.
Walton goes on to emphasize that not only will DeRozan have to be disciplined when encountering this defense, LaVine will have to play better off the ball. LaVine has had some scintillating play this stretch of the season, but again I haven't bought too much of it as it’s in mostly fake NBA March. Playing more off-ball applies to his overall career, but especially in this game: LaVine would be better served embracing operating in space as a complementary option who shoots a lot of three pointers for a team that desperately needs it (Vuc needs to launch as well), instead of coming down with an acute case of Kobe-brain.
The Bulls have the better top-end players, and that should be the difference in what is otherwise a close playoff (ish) matchup. But both LaVine and DeRozan have had difficulties in the postseason for their career, whereas many Raptors (albeit as role players) were part of a championship run.
I’ll have other ‘intangibles’ and my own (useless) prediction later when we get close to gametime.
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