Once again on Wednesday night at the ACC, the Toronto Raptors face off against one of their primary competitors for a playoff spot in April.
During the offseason, the Chicago Bulls regained the services of the almost (but not quite there) star player Luol Deng who was lost midseason last year due to injury. Adding Deng to last year’s midseason acquisitions of Brad Miller and John Salmons and this off-season’s signing of Jannero Pargo gives Chicago an almost uniquely deep team of good veteran players.
After last season’s memorable playoff series against the Boston Celtics, the return of substantially the same team and coaches, and the continued improvement of their young players, Chicago is expected to get off to a good start this season and compete for a playoff spot.
But outside of the potential second year player and Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose brings to the team, the Chicago Bulls suffer from a lack of true star power. However, opposing teams will find little to no drop off in talent or ability when the Bulls bench enters the game. Chicago can beat any team that doesn’t play at their best.
As expected, the Toronto Raptors have gotten off to an inconsistent start this season. The integration of nine new players and head coach Jay Triano’s new offensive and defensive schemes have produced wild variances in the team’s play. The only real positive is the 3-4 record after seven games against six playoff teams.
As expected Toronto’s strength has been the ability to score as they’ve averaged over 109 points per contest. However, the Raptors have been surrendering an average of 111 points and questions about their ability to defend on a night-to-night basis abound.
Similar to the Pistons, the Bulls are a low scoring team averaging just 88.5 points over their first six games. There highest offensive output was 93 points against Charlotte.
Bur also like the Pistons, the Bulls defense has been stingy. Except for the 118-90 loss in Boston, the Bulls have surrendered just over 87 points per game.
The result has been the that Bulls have already won three games by three points or less on their way to an impressive 4-2 start that includes wins over Cleveland and San Antonio.
However, just like the Detroit Pistons coming into the ACC last week, the Chicago Bulls face their first high-powered offensive team of the season at home Tuesday night. But instead of Orlando, the Bulls face the Denver Nuggets.
The game against the Nuggets went down to a disallowed shot coming on an in-bounds play with just 0.3 seconds left in the game. The Bulls losing 90-89. The Bulls really do have trouble scoring more than 90 points in a game.
Coming into Toronto on Wednesday night after playing a hard fought game against the Nuggets puts the Bulls at a significant disadvantage. A tired team that relies on a hustling defense and has trouble scoring will have their hands full against a team like the Raptors.
The loss of Tyrus Thomas to a broken left forearm for the next six weeks does impact on the Bulls depth but with Joakim Noah playing well and the veteran Brad Miller available to play more minutes, the Bulls should experience little drop off in team performance. Except perhaps when they are playing back-to-back games?
The fact rookie forward Taj Gibson has averaged 21 minutes per game this season and is playing well will help offset the loss of Thomas. Plus rookie forward James Johnson may finally see some consistent minutes in Thomas’ absence.
The starting line-ups for the teams compare as follows:
Sophomore Derrick Rose has struggled early on due to an ankle injury averaging just 12.3 points and 5.7 assists over his first six games. This back-to back against two offensive teams will offer a real test of his condition.
Against the Nuggets, Rose had 22 points and five assists. Rose almost led his team back in the fourth quarter scoring 10 points. But his ability to turn and drive on the basket was non-existent.
Jose Calderon struggled early but over the last three games has averaged 14 points, eight assists, and shot 55 percent from the field.
The seven-year veteran John Salmons came into his own last season averaging 18.3 points and 4.3 rebounds. One has to question just what was Sacramento was thinking when they traded him.
This season his numbers have dropped to a still respectable 13.8 points and 3.8 rebounds and Salmons continues to provide strong guard play for the Bulls.
The Raptors are starting rookie DeMar DeRozan. For a rookie, DeRozan has performed well in just over 18 minutes per night averaging 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds.
DeRozan is not expected to dominate any of the veteran guards he will be facing in the starting line-up at this time.
This is a matchup of two experienced and well-respected small forwards.
A one point the Bulls believed Luol Deng was destined to be an all-star, signing him to a near maximum dollar contract. And this prediction could still turn out to be true. The five-year veteran has career numbers of 15.4 points plus 6.4 rebounds and Deng is averaging 16.7 points and 10 boards to start this season.
Deng had another big game against Denver scoring 21 points, and collecting six rebounds and five assists.
The former Orlando Magic small forward, Hedo Turkoglu, has had an inconsistent start with new teammates, but no one should question his effort. Third on the Raptors in scoring (15) and rebounds (4.3) and second in assists (3.3), Hedo has made an early impact. Defensively, Turkoglu is tied for the Raptors’ lead in blocks with seven on the season.
In Turkoglu's last game he scored 20 points against the Spurs.
Last game in Charlotte, rookie Taj Gibson had his third start for the Bulls this year. Not surprisingly he only played 19 minutes with six points and two boards. Gibson was averaging 6.4 points per game on the season.
Against Denver, Gibson had a strong game scoring 10, rebounding six, and getting three steals and a block in 28 minutes. Gibson didn't look much like a rookie.
No one has kept Bosh from having a 20 point plus game this season and the Bulls' rookie is highly unlikely to be the first. Don't be surprised to find Noah guarding Bosh on the inside.
Joakim Noah is starting off with a breakout season. In his third season, Noah has put his 6.8 point, 6.8 rebound days behind him and has come out averaging 11.3 points and 11 rebounds to start the year.
Against Charlotte, Noah put up 21 points and 16 rebounds. Versus Denver, Noah added 12 points and an impressive 21 boards. Plus Noah is a key help defender in Chicago's interior defense.
The Raptors center Andrea Bargnani has started the season strong averaging over 20 points and 6.4 rebounds easily out-scoring most of the slower big men he usually faces.
With shooting range out to the three-point line and hitting on 49 percent of his three-point attempts, Bargnani will need to draw Noah away from the basket to offset Noah’s rebounding.
If Noah switches off to guard Bosh, the rookie Gibson will be left defending Bargnani. Gibson has yet to face anyone with Bargnani's offensive skills and with the athletic Thomas unavailable to back him up, it will be up to Bargnani to take advantage of the rookie's inexperience.
The classic offense versus defense match-up on the back-end of a back-to-back, the rested Bargnani on his home court should be able to take advantage of the Bulls centers.
If Derrick Rose remains slowed by his ankle issues or just runs out of gas on the tail end of the back-to-back, there is no one on the Bulls who should keep up with the scoring from the Raptors. But unfortunately the Raptors have made other defensive teams’ players look like high-powered scorers already this season.
This is another important early season test for the Raptors, a test they should easily handle. Once again a team they need to beat is coming into the ACC after playing another very good offensive team the night before. The Raptors must take advantage.
No excuses, the Raptors need to establish their superiority on home court against a direct competitor for a playoff spot in April.