Everything you need to know about the Raptors play-in game tonight against DeMar DeRozan’s Bulls
Published Tuesday, April 11, 2023 11:23PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 12, 2023 5:07AM EDT
The Toronto Raptors’ playoff hopes are still alive – but to get there, they’ll have to vanquish a familiar face.
They’re set to host former Raptor DeMar DeRozan and the Chicago Bulls in their first-ever play-in game at Scotiabank Arena tonight, with hopes of moving on to a second must-win game, which would secure them the final playoff spot in the eastern conference.
Here are five things you need to know about tonight’s do-or-die game.
THE PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT
The NBA play-in tournament is a three-year-old competition which gives the ninth and 10th seeds in the eastern and western conferences a chance to make the playoffs if they’re able to win two-straight single elimination games.
Prior to the tournament’s inception in the 2020-2021 season, only seeds one through eight in each conference made the post-season.
Now, the ninth and 10th seeds in each conference play each other in a single elimination game, while the seventh and eighth seeds also battle it out, with the winner claiming the seventh seed.
The loser then plays the winner of the ninth-10th seed game, and the team that comes out on top claims the eighth and final playoff spot.
Sitting in ninth place, the Raptors will need to win tonight at home against the Bulls, and then on Friday night on the road against Kyle Lowry and the Miami Heat.
If they can do that, they’ll make the playoffs and square off against the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
"I think it should bode well for us to just be able to lock in on one thing," said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, with a towel still draped over his head following practice on Monday.
"We have a couple of days to let the coaches come up with the schemes and the game plans, and we just try to go out and execute the best we can. It’s not exactly the playoffs but a similar type of preparation, getting ready for win or go home."
For the first time since he was traded for Kawhi Leonard, former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan will face off against the team that drafted him in the post-season.
And after leading Toronto to five-straight playoff appearances to close out his Raptors career, DeRozan knows how boisterous the fans at Scotiabank Arena can be.
“The atmosphere is going to feel like it’s an Eastern Conference Finals game in a play-in game,” he told reporters on Sunday night.
“So it’s definitely going to be crazy. Driving to the arena, walking through the arena, you’re definitely going to feel it. That’s the beauty of that place, those fans. And any competitor would want to be a part of that.”
The Raptors drafted DeRozan ninth overall in 2009, and alongside Lowry, he helped lead the team to its first playoff appearance in five seasons in 2014, followed by its first-ever conference finals appearance in 2016.
DeRozan was a four-time all-star as a member of the Raptors and is still the franchise leader in points and minutes played.
“He’s still a great friend of mine,” Raptors forward OG Anunoby told reporters on Monday.
“Just a great teammate, we all looked up to him and he did a good job teaching us.”
The Raptors (41-41) were a slightly better regular-season team than the Bulls (40-42) this year, and they won the season series 2-1.
Toronto is widely favoured in tonight’s game, due in part to their home-court advantage, as well as their collection of young talent, namely defending Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes, and playoff-hardened veterans like VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.
On the whole, the Raptors’ offense has also been much more impressive than Chicago’s this year.
Toronto has eight players that average more than nine points per game, while the Bulls have just five.
Defensively, the Raptors have strong rim-protection thanks to newly-acquired centre Jakob Poeltl, and a feared perimeter defender in Anunoby, who led the NBA in total and per-game steals this season.
He’ll likely be tasked with guarding DeRozan for most of the game, and the six-year forward says he knows it’ll be a challenge.
“[I have to make] him work for everything; make everything as difficult as possible,” he said.
"It’s definitely difficult against a player like him. He’s a great player with a bunch of different tricks and skills."
Ultimately, the Raptors will need Siakam, their leading scorer, to create offense for them in the half-court, where they struggle to put up points.
The team much prefers to get out and run in transition and use their athleticism to beat teams down the floor – but that becomes much harder to do in the post-season.
Another key for the Raptors will simply be to make their perimeter shots. The team was the third-worst three-point-shooting team in the league this year by percentage, but were able to win games when they got hot from the outside.
Chicago’s strengths offensively come in the form of their all-star trio of DeRozan, Zach Lavine, and centre Nikola Vucevic.
But luckily for the Raptors, there aren’t many other scoring threats outside those three.
As a team, the Bulls were one of the worst offensive squads in the league this year, and were dead-last in attempted three-point shots, making them significantly easier to defend.
Still, if the game is close in the fourth quarter, DeRozan and Lavine are proven tough-shot makers, and Vucevic is one of the most skilled offensive big men in the NBA.
The Bulls’ real strength this year has been on defence. They employ two of the best guard defenders in the league in Patrick Beverley and Alex Caruso, who are sure to make VanVleet’s life difficult at the point of attack.
They’ve also got defensive-minded forward Patrick Williams, who averaged career-highs in steals and blocks in his third NBA season.
If Chicago’s defence can slow down the Raptors attack and keep the game close in the final minutes, they may have a chance to pull off the upset.
DeRozan says he knows that the Raptors defence will be focused on him throughout the game, but he’s confident he knows how to handle it.
“I’m going to deal with it. I know how to deal with it now. But playing against [Raptors coach Nick Nurse] and playing against those guys, they try to do everything in their power to make sure I don’t beat them,” DeRozan said on Sunday.
“I’m aware of it for sure, and for my sake I definitely have my own theory around how I’m going to deal with it.”
START TIME, JURASSIC PARK, WEATHER
Tonight’s game between the Bulls and Raptors tips off shortly after 7 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena. Watch it on TSN.
And fans without a ticket into the building can still cheer on the team from “Jurassic Park” outside the arena, where the hugely popular playoff tailgate parties are held each year.
Fans will be required to register for a free mobile pass to be granted access to the tailgate area.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) says that passes for tonight’s game are currently available, with each fan having access to a maximum of four passes.
The mobile passes will only be available on the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors mobile apps and can’t be downloaded from the Scotiabank Arena website, as was the case last year.
“Fans in attendance will enjoy exclusive giveaways, fun activations, special guests, a live DJ and more,” a press release states. Gates open at 5 p.m.
For fans planning to attend, the forecast is calling for summer-like weather for the duration of the game.
Clear skies and temperatures in the high-teens are expected well into the evening.
With files from Chris Fox and The Canadian Press.