Why Raptors’ clash with Bulls is most important game of season

Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen, left, shoots against Toronto Raptors forward Stanley Johnson, centre, and centre Aron Baynes. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

TORONTO — As far as stretch-run games against the Chicago Bulls go, they don’t get much bigger than the one the Toronto Raptors will play on Thursday night.

Though it may sound a tad melodramatic, Thursday’s game could prove to be the most important one of the season for the Raptors. This is because of where the two teams currently find themselves in the standings.

Chicago holds a two-game edge over the Raptors for 10th place in the Eastern Conference — the spot Toronto needs to occupy to reach the play-in tournament.

Stuck in 11th place in the East since March 14, the Raptors have been unable to make much of a dent in the Bulls’ lead on them for 10th place. They have an opportunity to make some significant progress in this head-to-head matchup.

After Thursday’s game, the Raptors will only have 20 games left before their regular season concludes, meaning their runway to try to turn things around is quickly shrinking.

“We’re all thinking about making the playoffs,” said Raptors forward Chris Boucher after Toronto’s blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday. “We don’t want to be done in a month and be home. We’re all trying to work hard, and obviously we’ve got a lot of players that are hurt right now, so we’re gonna try to make the best of what we’ve got.

“But we definitely want to make the playoffs. We have to figure out a way. I think the last two games we fought hard and we got two wins out of it, and if we keep that same energy, I think we’ve got a chance. We’ve just have to be able to do that every night.”

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As Boucher alluded to, the Raptors are kind of a mess right now. The six players who missed Tuesday’s contest against Los Angeles are scheduled to miss Thursday’s tilt, plus one additional player who was just announced earlier on Thursday.

OG Anunoby and Montrezl Harrell were both ejected from Tuesday’s game after a little scuffle. The aftermath of this saw Anunoby fined $30,000 and both Fred VanVleet and DeAndre’ Bembry hit with a one-game suspension for leaving the bench area, coming in defence of their teammate.

The result of this is the Raptors will be down to the league-minimum eight players on Thursday because Kyle Lowry (right foot), VanVleet (left hip), Rodney Hood (right hip), Jalen Harris (right hip), Patrick McCaw (left knee), Paul Watson (health and safety protocols) and now Bembry (league suspension) all won’t be available.

And for those wondering, VanVleet will serve his suspension when he’s healthy and available to play.

That’s a lot of bodies the Raptors are down but they won’t see any pity from the Bulls Thursday because they’re also in a precarious position, clinging to 10th place with the hopes of climbing higher.

“From here on we have to win as much as possible because we have to make up some ground and try to get ourselves back in a situation where we can move up the standings,” said Bulls forward Thaddeus Young after his team’s morning shootaround Thursday. “But for us, going out there, we know Toronto is a tough team even if their stars are not playing. They’re a team that contended for a championship and [won] a championship and they understand how to play together as a team. They understand whoever the scorer is out there how to get them the ball and they have a phenomenal coach. He’s done a hell of a job in going out there and working with what he’s got and he’s done the things that he needs to do to have that respect in this league as well as the players that play for his team.

“So we can’t take them for granted and we’ve just got to go out there and make sure we play at all costs.”

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There’s no mercy to be found in the NBA, after all, and the Raptors will have to be ready for an important test Thursday night, even as shorthanded as they are.

A win would put them in position to be right there to leapfrog Chicago and get back into the play-in picture. A loss, while not season-ending, would be quite the setback.

Regardless of the outcome, don’t expect the Raptors to just fade to black this season. The club is reportedly making a move to sign Montreal native Khem Birch after he clears waivers.

Birch figures to shore up the Raptors’ desperate need at centre for the remainder of the season as he’s a good defender, is as strong as an ox and can even shoot the ball a little.

So reinforcements appear to be on the way for the Raptors. They’d do well to see if they could help themselves first.

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