Following a standard 118-108 rout of the New York Knicks, the Toronto Raptors and their talents embark on a roadie to the Windy City for a Monday nighter versus the Chicago Bulls. Tonight’s affair marks the first challenge of a lengthy six-game road trip where the Raptors square off against daunting Western foes including the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns. The Raptors have been beneficiaries of favourable scheduling, playing a NBA-high 17 home games, so a tough road swing is long overdue and will be a benchmark for how this team fares against the NBA’s best.
In their previous contest, Toronto (22-6) jumped to a 52-45 halftime lead over their Eastern Conference counterparts in front of national television yet were outclassed by Chicago (17-9) as they prevailed with a 100-93 win. Fortuitously, with DeMar DeRozan out the Raps will catch some breaks in tonight’s matchup as Pau Gasol is a game time decision with a chest injury while former MVP Derrick Rose is fighting the flu. This should be an entertaining affair with plenty of bragging rights for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Cage’s Keys to the Game:
Jimmy Butler is blossoming into one of the better all-around guards in the NBA and is in the midst of a career season, averaging 21.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists. The 25-year-old possesses excellent defensive skills, capable of shadowing athletic guards and lengthy forwards, and is a highly efficient scorer due to his inside and outside game. Butler torched the Raptors in November for 21 points and nine boards on .700 shooting and could replicate that effort as Toronto will likely be missing their best guard defender in Landry Fields. He suffered a head injury on Friday and did not pass concussions tests. Greivis Vasquez and James Johnson will most likely be assigned the task of guarding the former Marquette Golden Eagle who has scored 30+ points in two straight games.
As a whole, the Chicago Bulls are a well-balanced squad both defensively and offensively and really have no identifiable weaknesses, save for roster health. However, one area that needs improvement is opponent offensive rebounds per game as the Bulls are tied for 26th overall with 11.8. Toronto does not excel in offensive rebounding (11.0 per game), but have the more athletic and mobile frontcourt in Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson. Center Joakim Noah will cause fits for both but Gasol is still questionable for tonight’s outing and if he is absent the Raptors need to capitalize on the glass to generate much-needed second chance scoring opportunities.
Solid First Quarter
The Raptors are Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to opening frames, either jumping to double digit leads or trailing by a significant margin. Toronto had poor first quarters against the Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons and that cannot be the case tonight against a determined Chicago team that is 13-2 when holding opponents to under 100 points. If the Raptors are passive and sluggish in the first quarter, they will most likely lose this game.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry
No need to go off the board here, I will go with the safe and logical pick. Arguably the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, Lowry has posted 19.0 points, 9.4 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals over his past five games. Expect the 28-year-old to be extra motivated and continue his scoring tear against the Chicago Bulls.