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Raptors lock in on Bulls for play-in game

TORONTO – It’s almost a luxury for Fred VanVleet and the Toronto Raptors to have several days to prepare for just one opponent.

VanVleet and his teammates are spending two days at the OVO Centre, the Raptors practice facility, strategizing as Toronto gets ready to host the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA Eastern Conference’s play-in tournament on Wednesday. The winner of that game will go on to face either the Miami Heat or the Atlanta Hawks on Friday in the second round of the bracket.

“I think it should bode well for us to just be able to lock in on one thing,” said VanVleet, with a towel still draped over his head following practice on Monday. “We have a couple of days to let the coaches come up with the schemes and the game plans, and we just try to go out and execute the best we can.

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“It’s not exactly the playoffs but a similar type of preparation, getting ready for win or go home.”

VanVleet, who led the Raptors with 7.2 assists per game and was second in scoring with 19.3 points per game, said that the days off before hosting Chicago plays to Toronto’s strengths.

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“I think our coaching staff is one of the tops in the league in terms of preparation and game planning and finding different things and having adjustments ready on the fly,” said VanVleet. “You’ve got to give them a ton of credit for that.

“It’s up to us to go out there and try to execute the best we can. I’m looking forward to it.”

The play-in tournaments follow a Page playoff format, much like curling.

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No. 7 Miami hosts eighth-place Atlanta on Tuesday, with the winner officially becoming the seventh seed in the East’s playoffs.

Toronto, which finished the regular season ninth in the East, welcomes No. 10 Chicago on Wednesday, with the winner of that game travelling to the loser of the Miami-Hawks game on Friday.

The Raptors won two of their three meetings with the Bulls this season, beating Chicago 104-98 when they last met on Feb. 28 at Scotiabank Arena. Toronto won both games at home and lost on the road versus the Bulls.

Whichever team emerges from Friday’s game will be the eighth seed in the conference playoffs, facing the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.

“I know this is going to sound silly to you, but every game is must win,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Every game we play, we’re going out there to win.

“So we got another one in front of us Wednesday.”

A key part of that will be shutting down former Raptors small forward DeMar DeRozan, whose 24.5 points per game were second most on Chicago, just 0.3 points less than shooting guard Zach Lavine.

Locking off DeRozan will likely be the responsibility of O.G. Anunoby, who led the NBA with 1.9 steals per game this season.

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“Just denying him the ball and trying to force out his catches as far as possible,” said Anunoby on how to stop his good friend DeRozan. “Making him work for everything, make everything as difficult as possible.

“It’s definitely difficult against a player like him. He’s a great player with a bunch of different tricks and skills.”

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Raptors and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, announced on Monday that it’s bringing back its tailgating parties outside Scotiabank Arena for the two teams’ post-seasons.

Festivities will begin at the so-called Jurassic Park on Wednesday for Toronto’s one-and-done game with the Bulls.

VanVleet said that the Raptors’ vociferous fan base will also be an asset in the high-pressure showdown.

“It should be should be crazy, man. It should be a really fun atmosphere,” said VanVleet. “This time of the year and these types of circumstances I think brings the best out of our crowd.

“Having that home-court advantage has (made Toronto) one of the more special places to play in the NBA over the last decade.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2023.

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