The Chicago Bulls aren’t quite in the NBA playoffs, but they have a chance to claw their way into the first round with two wins in the play-in tournament this week.
The challenge starts Wednesday, when the 10th-seeded Bulls visit the ninth-seeded Toronto Raptors in the first leg of the tournament (6 p.m., ESPN).
The winner will advance to a Friday game in Miami against the Heat, who lost 116-105 to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night. The Hawks earned the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference with the victory, while Friday’s winner gets the No. 8 seed.
The Raptors finished 41-41 after jockeying with the Hawks (41-41) and Bulls (40-42) for play-in positioning over the final weeks of the season. The Bulls went 1-2 against the Raptors this season, dropping both of their games in Toronto.
Here’s what to expect from the matchup.
Working through pressure
The Raptors have taken a clear approach in each of their matchups with the Bulls — get the ball out of the hands of DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.
LaVine averaged 8.5 field goals made in his two outings against the Raptors, while DeRozan took only 26 shots in three games and averaged 14 points. The Raptors achieved this through a combination of traps and double teams designed to keep both players out of their comfort zones.
The Bulls know this trend will continue Wednesday. To ease the pressure on DeRozan and LaVine, they need other scorers — such as Nikola Vučević, Coby White and Patrick Williams — to produce enough to even out coverage across the court.
But the Bulls also need their stars to find a way to thrive through the extra defensive attention. The play-in game holds the same do-or-die stakes as a Game 7 of a playoff series, and for the Bulls, those moments always come down to DeRozan and LaVine.
If the game comes down to the wire, one of the two stars will need to step up — especially after the Bulls struggled in clutch situations this season.
Size and strength
The average height of the Raptors roster is just over 6-foot-7, nearly a full inch taller than the league average. In addition to bigs Jakob Poeltl (7-1) and Pascal Siakam (6-8), the team has impressive length with players such as wing Scottie Barnes (6-8).
This size advantage dictates the way the Raptors defend. They switch early and often, throw bodies at the line and try to shepherd every shooter into the paint, where the lengthy arms of Poeltl and Siakam await to swat away shots.
The discrepancy in size creates a particular challenge for the Bulls on the boards. The Raptors are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA, averaging 12.7. While the Bulls have been decent in defensive rebounding this season, they struggled to keep the Raptors off the offensive glass during both of their losses.
The pressure will be on Bulls centers Vučević and Andre Drummond, but rebounding will need to be a teamwide effort for the Bulls to stay competitive against the larger Raptors.
Get on the run
If the Bulls can force the Raptors into errors and get into transition, they can lean into one of their greatest advantages. The Bulls are fourth in the league in points off turnovers (18.3 per game) and play their best style of basketball when they push the ball with LaVine spearheading the attack.
But this strength also could be a weakness. The Bulls need to protect the ball to keep from losing control of the game to the Raptors, who lead the league in points off turnovers (21 per game). Stacking too many wasted possessions would play directly into the style of the Raptors, who can wear down opponents with their physicality.
What are the odds?
The Raptors are favored by five points. The over-under is set at 214.5 total points.