Raptors prepare for Bulls while East gets tougher after Bucks trade

Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey says he’s not too worried about the team’s poor shooting, instead his major concern is their transition defence.

After getting down double-digits early to a John Wall-less Washington Wizards team on Sunday afternoon, the Toronto Raptors know they can’t sleep on their opponents, and will have to remind themselves ahead of Tuesday night’s matchup with the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls come into the Air Canada Centre at 2-6 on the season, good for second-last in the East, and they’ve already been blown off the floor by the Raptors once this season, dropping a lop-sided season opener 117-100 in Toronto.

But what they lack for talent on the roster, Chicago makes up for by playing hard. They’ve given teams like San Antonio and Cleveland (before we knew they were a mess) a tough fight, and over the weekend blew the 6-4 Orlando Magic off the floor, 105-83.

In their second game of a three-game homestand, Toronto will look to improve to 6-4 and lay the groundwork to help establish consistency coming off after an erratic stretch of basketball.

Projected starting fives

Raptors
Kyle Lowry
DeMar DeRozan
Norman Powell
Serge Ibaka
Jonas Valanciunas

Bulls
Jerian Grant
Justin Holiday
Paul Zipser
Lauri Markkanen
Robin Lopez

Dwane Casey has concerns, but Norm Powell isn’t one of them

After a slow start to the season, at least offensively, Powell seems to be finding his groove of late in his first season as a starter since opening night.

After a 15-point performance (including three three-pointers) against the Bulls in Game 1 of the season, Powell went on to average just 4.2 points on only 24 per cent shooting from the floor and a stunning 16.7 per cent from deep. Over his last three games he’s averaged 16 points per as his shot is falling more consistently, but it’s his general approach lately that his coach is happier to see.

Uncharacteristically pensive with the ball earlier this season, Powell has clearly been far more assertive over the past seven days, using his speed and athleticism to his advantage.

“He’s not tip-toeing around and moving at a slug-like pace,” Casey said after the team’s shootaround Tuesday morning at the ACC.

Powell aside, the Raptors are looking for better performances across the board from their starters, who have often come out of the gate uninspired. That, plus the team’s NBA-worst three-point shooting rate, has dug a needless hole for the Raptors at times this season, but Casey sees a bigger issue at the moment.

“My major concern is our transition defence,” he said. “We’ve gone from top-five the last few years to in the 20s now. There’s no excuse for that.”

When asked if that decline could be related to the team’s new-look offence and higher three-point shooting rate, which could potentially leave the Raptors in a difficult position to get back on defence a bit more often, Casey was succinct in his response.

“Maybe. There are a lot of excuses,” he said, “but none are worth a crap.”

Chicago is one of the slowest-paced teams in the NBA, ahead of only the Sacramento Kings, so Tuesday night may be a good opportunity for the Raptors to work on getting back without getting burned.

Roster notes

With the Raptors 905 season underway in the G League, the Raptors have made a pair of moves. Monday night, they sent forward Alfonzo McKinnie down to join the 905. McKinnie was a G League all-star last season and should occupy a major role for the 905, although expect him to be called up to join the Raptors when they go on the road again this weekend.

On Tuesday, the team announced that Bruno Caboclo will also be sent down to the Raptors 905. Caboclo has played just seven minutes over two games in the NBA this season, and he may be a candidate to stay with the 905 for a longer duration to continue to get game experience and preparation under his belt.

Bucks get stronger, landscape shifts in East

As the Raptors hit the court for their pre-game shootaround, news of the trade between Phoenix and Milwaukee leaked.

The Bucks will reportedly land disgruntled Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe in exchange for centre Greg Monroe and a first-round pick.

Monroe, a former lottery pick, was averaging career-lows in every meaningful category, including playing just 15.8 minutes per game. Bledsoe stands to occupy a much bigger role for a Bucks team that just got significantly better. He’s an all-star level talent and another big, strong, ultra-athletic piece for Milwaukee’s roster. He averaged more than 20 points in each of his last two seasons but his time in Phoenix was largely a disappointment, with zero playoff appearances in four seasons.

Although he’ll likely drag the team’s third-ranked three-point percentage down a bit, Bledsoe stands to make a sizeable impact on both ends of the floor, and should become the Bucks’ second in command behind Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Read into this whatever you want, but Bledsoe has a higher career scoring average against Toronto (17.4 points per game) than any other team in the league.

The trade will also likely open up minutes for centre Thon Maker, who gave the Raptors fits at times in the 2017 post-season.

They’re under .500 at the moment (4-5), but Milwaukee has leapfrogged some teams in the East and are now firmly in the running for a top-three seed this season if they weren’t already.

Bulls get Bobby Portis back

Bobby Portis’ eight-game suspension has come to a close and the third-year power forward is eligible to return versus the Raptors. Portis, you’ll recall, was suspended for punching teammate Nikola Mirotic in the face during a pre-season practice scrimmage. Mirotic remains sidelined but the Bulls have actually done just fine without Portis, who is known for attacking the glass, and rank first in the NBA in rebounds per game (granted their league-worst field-goal percentage may be helping them to more offensive rebounding opportunities than most).

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg confirmed that Portis will play Tuesday night, coming off the bench behind rookie Lauri Markkanen, who has legitimately impressed so far this season, a way-too-early Rookie of the Year candidate averaging 16.3 points, 2.8 threes and nine boards per game.

The Raptors and Bulls tip-off at 7:30 p.m. ET with live coverage on Sportsnet 590 The FAN.