Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet figures the nature of the Eastern Conference play-in tournament bodes “well for us.”
Ninth-seeded Toronto, which is set to host the No. 10 seed Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, can “lock in on one thing” before another might come into focus, VanVleet said.
The winner advances to visit the Miami Heat on Friday for the chance to face the Milwaukee Bucks, the East’s top seed, in the first round of the playoffs. The Heat fell 116-105 to the visiting Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday in the showdown for the East’s No. 7 seed.
VanVleet said of the upcoming matchup, “It’s not exactly the playoffs but a similar type of preparation, getting ready for win or go home.”
Toronto won the regular-season series with Chicago 2-1, prevailing on its home floor in both victories. The Raptors (41-41) and Bulls (40-42) haven’t met since Toronto’s 104-98 home win on February 28.
Pascal Siakam paced a balanced Raptors offence with 20 points, while Nikola Vucevic led the Bulls with 23 points.
Chicago second-leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, a longtime former Raptor, attempted only 26 shots and scored 42 total points against Toronto during the regular season, 10.5 points below his season average of 24.5 per game.
“He’ll definitely be more aggressive on Wednesday,” the Raptors’ O.G. Anunoby said. “Just us in the game plan, trying to limit his touches and force him out as much as possible, try to make it as difficult as possible.”
VanVleet echoed the strategy when it comes to attempting to contain DeRozan and Zach LaVine, Chicago’s leading scorer.
“You know, those two guys you don’t really guard with just one person,” VanVleet said. “It takes a five-man group. ... Definitely, I think limiting touches and attempts is your best way to start on those guys.”
Inconsistent throughout the season following a breakthrough run to the playoffs in 2021-22, the Bulls feel refreshed.
Chicago knew of its seeding several days before Sunday’s regular-season finale, allowing coach Billy Donovan to manage minutes as the team adjusted its collective mindset to the novelty of the play-in tournament.
To DeRozan, maintaining that unique focus will be key, an experience he internalized while being part of a play-in with the San Antonio Spurs two seasons ago.
“When you’ve got to pack a bag, you’ve got to pack with the understanding that if you win, we’ve got to go somewhere else and compete for another game,” he said. “That’s where it starts.
“It was a first, feeling that feeling like you’ve got to pack for a couple days. It’s kind of that unknowing. You want to make sure you make that luggage useful instead of just going back home. I think everybody’s going to feel it packing that bag, understanding that we’re not just going to play one game.”
The Bulls averaged just 10.4 made 3-pointers per game during the regular season, which ranked tied for last in the NBA.
Improving on that trend, as well as ball security, can only help. The Bulls’ 20 turnovers in the Feb. 28 meeting led to 21 Raptors points.
Since the All-Star break, however, Chicago is tops in the league in fewest opponent points per game allowed (107.9), slightly stingier than No. 2 Toronto (108.6).
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