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NBA Play-In: 4 Key Matchups the Bulls Need to Win Against the Raptors

Will Gottlieb Avatar
April 11, 2023

The Chicago Bulls are one game away from the end of their season.

They’re also one game away from advancing to a game that would put them in the NBA playoffs for a second straight season with a victory.

In preparation for Wednesday’s win-or-go home against the Raptors, it is important to analyze the season series between the Bulls and the Raptors, which Toronto won 2-1.

The two teams played a home-home back-to-back in early November, but both teams have undergone some changes since then. Most recently, they played February 28, right after the All-Star Break when the Raptors had newly acquired center Jakob Poeltl and the Bulls had integrated Patrick Beverley.

During that game, the Bulls led the majority of the way, but were overwhelmed by the Raptors offensive rebounding and aggressive defense and collapsed down the stretch of the fourth quarter.

As for the Play-In, this makes for an intriguing matchup because the Raptors excel at taking away the Bulls’ strengths. For instance, while the Bulls have the eighth-best offense at taking care of the ball, the Raptors are the second-best team at forcing turnovers. Conversely, the Bulls are the fourth-best team at generating turnovers, while the Raptors are the best at avoiding them.

Additionally, the Raptors are second in offensive rebounding, which could pose a challenge for the Bulls’ 16th-ranked defensive rebounding.

There’s more to it than just these four factors, but it’s a good starting place for the main ingredients in winning basketball games.

The Bulls need to be able to answer the four big questions.

  • Can they execute their help defense while still contesting threes?
  • Can the Bulls limit offensive rebounds and second-chance points?
  • Can the Bulls use the Raptors’ aggressive defense against them and take advantage of the easy looks they are given?
  • Can the Bulls win the turnover and fastbreak battle and neuter the Raptors only chance to generate offense?

If so, they will be on their way to Miami or Atlanta for a chance to get into the first round of the playoffs.

If not, RIP to the 2022-23 season.

Help and recover

The Bulls prioritize preventing easy shots at the rim as their primary defensive strategy. To achieve this, they apply intense pressure on the ball handler during pick-and-roll plays and bring Nikola Vucevic up to screen level to intercept drives before they can happen. Additionally, they send defenders from the backside to help create a wall and protect the paint.

While this strategy has been effective for the Bulls this season, it’s not impregnable, and the Raptors have the tools to exploit their weaknesses. The Bulls can be vulnerable to big men who can make plays on the short roll when they force the ball out of the pick-and-roll handler’s hands. If the help defenders fail to arrive in time, the Bulls can surrender layups. Conversely, if the help defenders arrive too aggressively, the Raptors’ shooters could be left open on the perimeter.

The Toronto Raptors have a formidable arsenal of shooters that can exploit the Bulls’ defensive scheme. Jakob Poeltl, although not a shooter himself, can create spacing by attacking the basket aggressively, making it difficult for smaller defenders to stop him. He can also locate open shooters if the defense shifts too much toward him.

Despite their confidence in contesting shots, the Bulls allow the third most three-point attempts in the league due to their focus on protecting the paint. The Raptors, with OG Anunoby, Gary Trent, and Fred VanVleet, pose a significant threat from beyond the arc, while the likes of Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes can also get hot on any given night.

In a one-game sample, any stretch of hot shooting could mean curtains.

Defensive rebounding

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. The Bulls started the season as an elite defensive rebounding team, ranking third in opponent offensive rebounding rate through the All-Star Break. In the final 23 games, however, the Bulls were only 16th.

That’s blood in the water for Toronto. 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.

The Raptors compensate for their lack of shot creation in the half-court with aggressive offensive rebounding. They’re long, athletic and relentless, and if the Bulls don’t secure the boxes and elbows, even after a long sequence of rotating around the perimeter, they will get killed.

Managing traps

Nick Nurse, the head coach of the Raptors, is renowned for his ingenuity and boldness when it comes to tactics. The Raptors are a versatile team, much like the Bulls, and are adept at rotations. Their athleticism and length enable them to trap the ball aggressively while also quickly getting back into position to challenge shots.

To beat the Raptors, the Bulls need to move the ball quickly and accurately and have confident shooters. The Raptors, similar to their strategy against the Bucks in last year’s playoffs, will likely try to force the ball out of DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine’s hands and challenge the rest of the Bulls to step up.

The Bulls won’t abandon their identity and rely solely on three-pointers, but they will need to attack off the catch and maintain the advantage. To counter the Raptors’ defense tactics, the Bulls should be prepared for zone, box-and-one, hard doubles, blitzing, and one-through-five switches.

DeRozan and LaVine will need to have big games to be sure, but they must also be patient, read what the Raptors are doing and exploit their weak spots. They can’t fall into the trap of doing too much and turning the ball over.

In a lot of cases, that will mean finding Vucevic on the short roll and letting him find the corners or finish with one of his push shots. Vucevic will also be crucial as a pick-and-pop threat, both to relieve pressure on the ball, but also to provide a source of dynamic offense.

The Bulls need to lean heavily on their stars. If they can absorb the pressure and make the right play, they will be fine. If they Bulls succumb to the pressure, the Raptors will dominate.

Winning the possession battle

In a game between two non-shooting, turnover-forcing teams, winning the possession battle is key to gaining an advantage. When the Bulls can get steals and run in transition, they perform at their best. However, the Raptors excel at taking care of the basketball, which is a challenge for the Bulls since they struggle to force turnovers.

The Bulls are also not as skilled at avoiding turnovers as the Raptors are at forcing them. If the Bulls can minimize their cough ups, they can neutralize one of the Raptors’ areas of strength and force them to win the game in the half-court, where their offense ranks 26th.

The Bulls’ ninth-ranked half court offense should give them an advantage if they can create fastbreak points opportunistically and make the game a majority half-court game. However, this is easier said than done, especially considering all of Nurse’s shenanigans. The Bulls will need to get to the free-throw line, make open threes, and take care of the ball to secure a victory.

Both teams have their formula for success, and they happen to clash.

Anything can happen in a single-elimination game, but it may just come down to which of the two teams does a better job at being themselves.

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