Bulls-Raptors Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated April 12, 2013
The Chicago Bulls have wins over all four teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings over the past three weeks. It's the clubs which are heading home next week that have given them trouble. The Bulls look to keep their grip on the East's No. 5 seed Friday night as they travel north of the border trying to avoid a second loss to the lottery-bound Toronto Raptors in four days. Questions of Derrick Rose's return have been hanging over the Bulls (43-35), but the former MVP's injury isn't the only one Chicago is dealing with. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton have missed time in recent weeks, and the Bulls' recent results have been all over the map as coach Tom Thibodeau has used 15 different starting lineups this season - five since March 23. That 11-game stretch has included victories over Indiana, Brooklyn, Miami and New York, with Chicago ending the Heat's 27-game winning streak March 27 and snapping the Knicks' 13-game run with Thursday's 118-111 overtime victory. Nate Robinson led the way with a season-high 35 points, bumping his average to 20.0 over his last 10 games. "For us, we're not focused on stopping streaks," Robinson said. "We're just trying to get better as a team going into the playoffs." While beating the four teams ahead of them has to have the Bulls feeling confident, some puzzling defeats may cost Chicago home-court advantage in the first round. Thursday's win came two days after a 101-98 home loss to Toronto, the Bulls' third defeat in five games to a team which won't make the playoffs. Chicago trails Brooklyn by three games for the No. 4 seed and is a half-game up on Atlanta for the fifth spot. The Raptors (30-48), meanwhile, have been off since beating the Bulls - a win that snapped Toronto's 10-game skid against teams likely headed for the postseason. "Everyone competed, everyone played with a toughness, a sense of purpose and togetherness, and I was looking for that more than anything else," coach Dwane Casey said. "That team's a tough team to play against because they play with toughness and a resilience that 'you've gotta play for 48 (minutes) or you're gonna get embarrassed.'" Not everything went well for Toronto on Tuesday, nearly blowing a 16-point lead with 8:22 remaining and allowing the Bulls to get within two in the final 20 seconds. In addition, rookie center Jonas Valanciunas left the court on a gurney with a neck injury after colliding with teammate Rudy Gay during a scramble in the final seconds. Valanciunas had a bit of whiplash, but showed up after practice Thursday without a neck brace. Casey will see how he looks during Friday's shootaround before deciding if he'll face the Bulls, while fellow rookie Terrence Ross is also questionable after spraining his ankle at practice Thursday. Valanciunas has averaged 15.1 points and shot 62.9 percent in his last 12 games. He was scoring 7.1 per game before that stretch. "He's probably put in as much work as anybody on our roster," Casey said. "And just to see it come to fruition and him improve individually is great to see." Deng, Hamilton and Belinelli played Thursday, but Noah and Gibson were sidelined again, so it's anyone's guess who Thibodeau will have available Friday. He may want to at least give Jimmy Butler a slight breather. Butler has played 98 minutes in the last two games, totaling 50 points and 21 rebounds. He's played fewer than 42 minutes just once in the last 10.
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