Mark Schanowski

Bulls-Raptors Preview: Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard have Toronto rolling

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USA TODAY

Bulls-Raptors Preview: Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard have Toronto rolling

Say this for Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri: he’s certainly not afraid to think big. Even with most NBA analysts predicting there’s virtually no chance Kawhi Leonard would consider signing long-term in Toronto when he hits free agency in July of 2019, Ujiri traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan and backup center Jakob Poeltl to San Antonio for Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

DeRozan is extremely popular in Toronto, especially after committing long-term to the franchise when so many experts predicted the L.A. native would sign with the Lakers or Clippers. DeRozan is also extremely tight with the Raptors other All-Star, point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry was initially devastated by news of the trade, but he’s come back this season with a positive attitude about what the team can accomplish with Leonard added to the starting lineup.

Through the first month of the season, it looks like Leonard is back to the form that made him one of the league’s top 10 players. He’s still an elite defender, while leading the Raptors in scoring at 24.2 points per game, shooting .477 from the field and .364 from the 3 point line. Leonard is also averaging nearly 8 rebounds and 2 steals per game.

Lowry continues to play at a high level at age 32, averaging right around 16 points and 11 assists per game, and the Raptors are getting a big lift from young power forward Pascal Siakam, who’s come back as an even bigger part of the rotation after being a complementary piece on Toronto’s outstanding bench unit a year ago.

Green has fit seamlessly into the starting lineup alongside Lowry, with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas providing rebounding and rim protection to back up Leonard’s ferocious perimeter defense. Ibaka is now starting at center, with Siakam at power forward and Valanciunas coming off the bench.

So, is Toronto the best team in the East right now? Our Bulls’ analyst Kendall Gill is a big fan of the Raptors, citing the impact Leonard can bring on both ends in potential playoff series against the Bucks, Celtics and 76’ers.

I think it’s still too early to tell, since the Sixers are still in the market to add shooting, and Boston will only get better as the season goes on while they integrate Gordon Hayward back into the rotation. The Raptors are good, but their bench group of O.G. Anunoby, Fred Van Vleet, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles isn’t having the same impact it did a year ago, and the jury is still out on Leonard’s ability to stay healthy for an entire season.

For now, first year coach Nick Nurse has done a good job of sustaining the team chemistry built under Dwane Casey while making sure Lowry feels appreciated after his best friend was traded away. The Raptors won’t have to worry about LeBron James anymore come playoff time, but their overall talent figures to be a notch below Boston and Philadelphia.

With that said, the Bulls will have their hands full Saturday night at the United Center.

How can they hang with the team that owns the best record in the East?

1. DON’T TURN THE BALL OVER. Like most elite teams Toronto loves to cash in off opponents’ mistakes, so live ball turnovers are likely to turn into lay-ups and dunks on the other end. Leonard remains one of the best 2-way players in the league, and his ability to get his hands on loose balls and careless passes fuels the Raptors’ fastbreak.

2. LIMIT 2ND CHANCE OPPORTUNITIES.  Valanciunas hasn’t developed into the low post scoring threat the Raptors envisioned, but he’s had a number of good games against the Bulls by attacking the offensive glass. Ibaka has also plateaued after a promising start to his career in Oklahoma City, but he’s still a strong offensive rebounder. Plus, Siakam has been an offensive terror over his last 6 games and he’s relentless in going after missed shots.

3. MAKE SOME 3’S.  Nothing helps an underdog team more than a productive night from 3 point range. Zach LaVine has cooled off from beyond the arc after a hot start, mostly due to aggressive double teams limiting his opportunities. Ryan Arcidiacono, Antonio Blakeney and Justin Holiday are currently the Bulls’ best 3 point shooters, and they’ll need to deliver when the Raptors’ defense loads up on LaVine.

You can watch Saturday night’s Bulls-Raptors’ game on NBC Sports Chicago. Kendall will be in Charlotte, where he’ll be honored as one of the top 10 players in Hornets’ history as part of the franchise’s 30 year anniversary celebration. We send out our congratulations to KG on the well-deserved honor.

Stacey King will join Will Perdue and me for Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6:30, and he’ll help us out again on the post-game show after calling the action with Neil Funk at 7 pm. We hope you’ll make plans to join us.

Bulls-Celtics preview: Is Boston still the team to beat in the East?

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USA TODAY

Bulls-Celtics preview: Is Boston still the team to beat in the East?

With former All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning from serious injuries to join a group of talented young players that took Cleveland to Game 7 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, most experts around the league predicted Boston would be the new beasts of the East in a LeBron-less world.

But one month into the season, the Celtics are still searching for consistency. They stand 3rd in the Atlantic Division and 6th in the East with a 7-6 record and well-respected coach Brad Stevens is hinting at line-up changes.

Hayward is still struggling to regain his form after that gruesome ankle injury he suffered on opening night of the 2017-18 season. Watching Celtics’ games early this year, it looks like Hayward is playing at three-quarters speed. He’s being limited to around 25 minutes right now and is averaging 9.9 points a game on .396 shooting from the field and .319 from 3 point range. The Celtics might be better served to bring Hayward off the bench and add more size to the front court with either Marcus Morris or Aron Baynes joining Al Horford in the starting line-up.

Irving looks completely recovered from the knee problems that brought a premature end to his 2017-18 season. He’s averaging 21 points and 5.4 assists on .466 shooting from the field and .405 from beyond the arc. When healthy, Irving is one of league’s most dynamic point guards and arguably one of the top 10 players overall.

Still, something is missing in Boston right now. After their breakout performances in last season’s playoffs, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still trying to adjust to less touches and shot attempts in half-court sets. Terry Rozier has also been less effective in a reserve role after starting in place of Irving in last season’s playoffs. Marcus Smart is still providing his trademark hustle plays and defense, but his inability to make shots (.328 from the field, .250 on 3’s) makes his a liability in crunch time.

Boston still has plenty of time to get things sorted out and Stevens is considered to be one of the league’s best coaches. Hayward should get better as he regains confidence in his surgically-repaired ankle, and Irving, Horford and Tatum are among the best players at their positions in the East.

Long-term, Boston figures to battle it out with Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee for the conference championship, but the predictions we read about the Celtics dominating the East for the next half dozen years might have been overstated. The Raptors are off to a 12-2 start with Kawhi Leonard happy and healthy again, and the 76’ers will feature an impressive big 3 after their acquisition of former Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler. It’s anyone’s guess which team will come out on top in late May.

So, what will the Bulls need to do to hang with the C’s at TD Garden on Wednesday?

1. GET ZACH SOME HELP.  LaVine stretched his season-opening streak of scoring 20 or more points to 14 games Monday night, but he was visibly exhausted in the post-game locker room after playing 41 tough minutes against a Mavericks’ defense that was designed to stop him. The Bulls desperately need someone from the group of Jabari Parker, Justin Holiday and Wendell Carter Jr. to emerge as a consistent 2nd scoring option.

2. LET CARTER PLAY THE AL HORFORD ROLE.  It seems like every city the Bulls visit around the league, coaches and opposing players are comparing Carter to the Celtics’ multiple time All-Star. Horford is an excellent passer at the high post, and the Bulls might want to try using Carter Jr. in that role to move LaVine off the ball at times to come off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Horford is also an excellent outside shooter, capable of spacing the floor to create driving lanes for Bostons’ athletic wing players. If Carter is able to knock down some mid-range jumpers, there might be less congestion in the paint when LaVine drives to the basket.

3. AVOID THE LONG DRY SPELLS.  The Bulls ran their offense effectively early in Monday’s game against Dallas, but missed a lot of open shots. Then, the Mavericks 2nd unit came in and broke the game open by going on a 27-8 run bridging the 1st and 2nd quarters. Boston has a lot more firepower than Dallas, so the Bulls will have sustain their offensive production throughout the game to keep things close heading into the final quarter.

Don’t forget you can watch Wednesday’s game on NBC Sports Chicago. Kelly Crull is with the team in Boston, and she’ll report live from TD Garden on Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6 pm. Adam Amin fills in for Neil Funk on the play by play call alongside Stacey King at 6:30, then Kelly will bring us reaction from Boston plus the expert analysis of Kendall Gill and Will Perdue on Bulls Post-Game Live. We wrap up the night with the fans’ perspective on Bulls Outsiders.

Make your plans to join us Wednesday night.

Bulls will try to slow down Mavericks' dynamic young backcourt

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USA TODAY

Bulls will try to slow down Mavericks' dynamic young backcourt

Through the opening four weeks of the NBA season, Dallas swingman Luka Doncic has emerged as one of the early favorites for the Rookie of the Year award. The 19-year-old from Slovenia is averaging 20.8 points on .489 shooting from the field and .395 from the 3 point line, along with 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

We’ve been hearing about Doncic for a number of years because of his sensational play in the European leagues, but some scouts questioned whether his lack of elite athleticism would limit his ability to excel at the NBA level.

So far, Doncic has silenced all the doubters with his innate feel for the game and the joy and flair he exhibits on the court. Paired with high-flying second year guard Dennis Smith Jr., Doncic is giving basketball fans in Dallas hope for the future despite the team’s current 4-8 record.

The Mavs beat the Bulls in the third game of the season in Dallas, 115-109, led by 19 points and 6 assists from Doncic and 18 points and 16 rebounds from veteran center DeAndre Jordan. The Bulls got outrebounded 41-34 and fueled the Mavs’ transition game with 19 turnovers that led to 27 points for the home team.

Monday’s rematch could be even tougher since Dallas will have the services of talented small forward Harrison Barnes. Barnes, who missed last month’s game because of injury, is averaging 14.5 points and five rebounds a game.

Even though he’s only shooting .377 from the field right now, Barnes' presence gives the Mavericks another three-point shooting threat on a team that lives and dies on its proficiency behind the arc. Dallas currently is tied for fifth in the NBA with 33.9 three point attempts per game.

Wesley Matthews scored 20 points in the first meeting between the two teams and veteran guard J. J. Barea always seems to comes up with big games against the Bulls. Barea is coming off a 21 point performance against Oklahoma City Saturday where he knocked down three of four attempts from three-point range.

So, what will it take for the Bulls to earn a split in the season series Monday night?

1. DEFEND THE THREE-POINT LINE Like so many teams in the modern NBA, the Mavs won’t get discouraged by early misses from long range. They’ll keep jacking up threes throughout the game, with everyone on the roster except DeAndre Jordan given the green light. Doncic, Matthews, Barnes and Smith Jr. are all capable of big nights from three-point land, as are Barea, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith off the bench.

2. LIMIT TURNOVERS  Dallas wants to play at a fast pace with their young guards making plays in transition, so careless turnovers will make the Mavericks even more dangerous in the open court. Inserting Ryan Arcidiacono into the starting lineup improved the Bulls offensive efficiency early in their win over Cleveland on Saturday, but the challenge now is sustaining that efficiency over four quarters.

Shaq Harrison also gave the Bulls quality minutes at the point guard position against the Cavs, and he’ll use his size and aggressiveness to put some defensive pressure on the Mavs’ guards.

3. ANOTHER BIG NIGHT FOR ZACH  LaVine poured in 34 points in a losing effort in Dallas last month, and he’ll have a big advantage in quickness against either Doncic or Matthews. Dallas might go with Barnes on LaVine at times to challenge Zach’s outside shooting, but that might open up more opportunities to drive to the rim, where Jordan will be waiting.

LaVine has been very successful so far in challenging opposing centers on drives, and even though Jordan is an excellent shot blocker, don’t expect the NBA’s fourth leading scorer to back down.

With match-ups against Eastern Conference heavyweights Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto coming up, you know the Bulls would love to come away with a win over Dallas on Monday night.

We’ll have the game for you on NBC Sports Chicago and the My Teams by NBC Sports app, starting with Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium at 6:30. Neil Funk and Stacey King will have the play by play call at 7, followed by Bulls Postgame Live and Bulls Outsiders.

We hope you make your plans to join us Monday night.