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Previewing the Raptors-Bulls play-in game



The Toronto Raptors have officially limped their way through the regular season to qualify for the postseason. It was more a slog than a step forward, more a stumbling through a series of misfortunate events than a step forward. But now the game(s) are about to matter.

They’ve been mostly good since acquiring Jakob Poeltl, although there have been some extreme moments of letdown. That’s particularly been the case recently — and, hopefully, we can explain that by saying Toronto has mostly been aiming for a play-in spot anyway, and so there hasn’t been huge incentive to try hard. Hopefully. That’s not super convincing for a bunch of reasons, but it’s possible.

Some early caveats: I had planned for this to be much shorter than my usual comprehensive previews, such as my work season in preparation for the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. This season, Toronto is not playing a seven-game series with the Chicago Bulls, so I did not want to go into the same level of depth. Much of the detail in the past has been about adjustments, and though there can be in-game adjustments here, it can’t be to the same depth. And yet, this is as long as my usual ones for whole series. Whatever, I can’t stop myself. I need to be committed. Real caveat though: If the Raptors do happen to win, I reserve the right to not do this for the second play-in game, as the turnaround would be difficult for me. Please God save me from myself.



Toronto has a pretty clean bill of health in the rotation, outside of Otto Porter jr. Siakam’s legs have seemed tired for a while now, and Gary Trent jr. is still working his way back from injury, but in general things are as good as they’ve been all season.

Outside of Lonzo Ball, who hasn’t played all year, the Bulls are in a pretty similar situation. Zach LaVine was held out recently for knee management, which was a bigger issue for him earlier in the year but has limited him much less recently. He exploded in March, and the Bulls have known their play-in fate for a while, so I doubt LaVine was held out for a real reason.

These are, more or less, two teams at their healthiest coming into the postseason.

The Basic Numbers

The Raptors and Bulls are remarkably similar teams in terms of season-long performance. Both are completely average on the season — and have been significantly better than that since the trade deadline. Their net ratings have been plus-3.4 for Toronto since that time period and plus-3.2 for Chicago, good for 10th and 11th in the league. Both have massively underperformed their expected win totals based on net rating, so models consider both teams stronger than their win-loss records or their seeds.

Both teams also have a few small areas of strength and many areas of weakness. Crucially, some of those areas intersect, providing the best hints we can find for the key battlegrounds upon which the game will be decided.

The Raptors force a lot of turnovers, and the Bulls don’t commit many turnovers. The Raptors snatch many offensive rebounds, and the Bulls don’t allow many offensive rebounds. Those two components, more than any others, should go a long way to determining the game. In many ways, they did in the regular-season series between the two teams.

Season Series Numbers

The Raptors did win the season series, though Toronto’s wins were close while the Bulls had a blowout in their lone win. That’s why the net rating is so close.

The two teams split a back-to-back in Toronto in early November, and there were plenty of mitigating factors. Pascal Siakam missed Toronto’s loss, and Zach LaVine missed Chicago’s. So, not a whole lot to take away; both teams look very different without their best players. Of course, that was before Toronto added Poeltl, so Toronto in particular looked different then.

When the two teams met in late February, both teams were much healthier, looking significantly like the two teams that will meet on Wednesday. The Raptors handled LaVine and DeMar DeRozan spectacularly, as O.G. Anunoby’s defense was maybe the most important component of the game. Plenty went wrong for Toronto, but it won mostly by playing hard. One hopes the same will be true in the play-in game, but it’s not necessarily a guarantee.

In general, the series has looked as Toronto has dictated. The Raptors pounded the glass and forced plenty of turnovers. Because Chicago’s defense is so stout, that didn’t end the game. But it gave the Raptors a huge edge — enough to overcome the efficiency gap that has plagued Toronto so devilishly this season.

Starter Matchup


PG: Fred VanVleet

SG: O.G. Anunoby

SF: Scottie Barnes

PF: Pascal Siakam

C: Jakob Poeltl


PG: Patrick Beverley

SG: Zach LaVine

SF: DeMar DeRozan

PF: Patrick Williams

C: Nikola Vucevic

This is very possibly, bordering on probably, wrong. If the Bulls want extra point-of-attack defense, Alex Caruso could start in place of Patrick Williams. Both are phenomenal defenders — for my money, the two best on the Bulls, and probably the two best after Anunoby in the series. (You could make a case for Caruso ahead of Anunoby.) Caruso is more usually the starter for Chicago, and there hasn’t been much indication that will change. (For what it’s worth, Bulls reporters have said Chicago is very open to starting Williams in place of Caruso. We’ll find out.)

But I am guessing Williams starts the game; he is the better shooter and gives Chicago more size to bang with Toronto’s plethora of forwards. I love Caruso as a defender, and Chicago hasn’t had a problem sticking him on all three of Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes this year. Siakam scored pretty well in that matchup, though; Williams just makes defense more natural for Chicago. Caruso is best at the point of attack, dissuading drives, and gapping; Toronto doesn’t really do that a whole lot, and instead prefers to attack in the post. That’s where Williams might have a defensive advantage. Both, of course, will play plenty of minutes, but I’m leaning towards Williams. (Ultimately, if I was Chicago, I would start both in place of Beverley. That lineup has been very good, plus-8.0 per 100 possessions, and Caruso and Williams together have played ferocious defense. But that’s even less likely to happen in a singe-game series. Perhaps if it were a long series we could see it.)

Toronto’s current starters have a plus-minus differential per 100 possessions of plus-9.1. The offense and defense have both been good. It’s not the best high-minute lineup, but it’s a very good one. (Sixth-best among groups with its number of possessions or more.) Given Nurse’s propensity to play his starters big minutes, and the fact it’s an elimination game, I would expect the starters to play something like 20 or more minutes together. Virtually half the game.

Chicago’s starters (that I’m listing) have a plus-minus differential per 100 possessions of … negative-31.6. Lol. That’s the worst group in the league with so many possessions. With Caruso in place of Williams it’s plus-12.9. I still think Williams starts because of the specific matchup against Toronto, but just about everything has gone wrong with Williams starting in place of Caruso. The minute total isn’t quite enough to say it’s a bad lineup, but it’s not a trivial minute total, either. Tough decisions for the Bulls. Significantly, Toronto could have an edge in either case: either Caruso starts, and Toronto has a big size advantage on the glass and in the post. Or Williams starts and the Bulls promise at least 10 minutes in an elimination game to a lineup that has been poor. The fact of the matter though is that Chicago doesn’t have both successful and gigantic lineups — Toronto does. That will be a boon for the Raptors.

Let’s look at some individual matchups, starting with the Raptors on offense.



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Blue Jays’ Chris Bassitt announces birth of child to cap ‘perfect weekend’



The Toronto Blue Jays had a memorable few days in New York, thanks to a three-game sweep of the Mets, but that’s not the biggest reason starting pitcher Chris Bassitt is all smiles these days.

Bassitt and his wife, Jessica, welcomed their second child over the weekend, with the veteran right-hander reporting that both mother and baby are doing well.

“Perfect weekend complete,” Bassitt wrote on Twitter. “Momma and Colson are doing great.”

Jessica went into labour Friday, while her husband took his normal turn in the Blue Jays’ rotation. Bassitt channelled all of his “dad strength” in that outing against the Mets, firing 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball with eight strikeouts in a 3-0 Toronto win. In a cruel twist from the universe, the start of the game was delayed more than 90 minutes due to inclement weather.


Once his outing was over, Bassitt rushed back to Toronto via private plane to be with Jessica for Colson’s birth. He made it in plenty of time, tweeting Saturday morning that the baby hadn’t arrived yet.

The 34-year-old will now be able to enjoy a few days with his family, as the Blue Jays placed him on the paternity list Saturday. Reliever Jay Jackson took his place on the 26-man roster.

Blue Jays pitcher Chris Bassitt dominated the Mets in his outing Friday. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Blue Jays pitcher Chris Bassitt dominated the Mets in his outing Friday. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Bassitt’s Blue Jays teammates gave him even more reason to cheer by eking out a 2-1 victory Saturday before getting the brooms out with a 6-4 win in the series finale.

Brandon Belt was the hero Sunday, connecting for a go-ahead, two-run home run in the seventh inning after Toronto squandered an early 4-0 advantage. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. also went deep for the Blue Jays, while Whit Merrifield delivered a two-run double in the second inning.

Next up, Toronto welcomes the Houston Astros to Rogers Centre for a four-game series that begins Monday. Bassitt is listed as the probable starter for Wednesday’s contest.



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Rory McIlroy (T-1) falls back on short game, stays positive with chance at Memorial



DUBLIN, Ohio – Rory McIlroy will set out Sunday afternoon at Jack’s Place looking to secure the second leg of the “Legends Slam” with a swing that’s well short of perfect and no shortage of would-be spoilers lurking.

He couldn’t be happier.

For the third consecutive day at the Memorial, McIlroy leaned on luck and grit to keep pace with the co-leaders – Si Woo Kim and David Lipsky – at 6 under par with 10 other players within two shots of the lead. Betting lines will undoubtedly favor the world No. 3 against the other contenders, but the truth is he has no idea what to expect when he sets out in the week’s final group.

Full-field scores from the Memorial Tournament


“I don’t think I hit a green from the eighth hole through the 14th hole, and I played those holes in even par,” McIlroy shrugged following his third-round 70. “Chip in on 12 [for birdie] and got it up-and-down from some tricky spots. I was really happy with how I scored out there and how I just sort of hung in there for most of the day.”

If McIlroy’s happy-to-be-here take doesn’t match with his world-beater persona, it’s the honest byproduct of a swing that he’s repeatedly said is a work in progress. Saturday’s round on a hard-and-fast course was the most-recent example of his very real struggle.

There was the chip-in for birdie at No. 12 from 25 feet and scrambling pars at Nos. 8, 11, 13 and 14. The major champion, whose career has been written with an overwhelming driver and sublime iron play, has now fully embraced the scrappy life.

“Embracing it,” he smiled. “There was a couple of shots out there when I missed the greens that I was sort of looking forward to hit. I think it’s embracing that challenge and embracing the fact that you’re probably not going to hit more than 12 or 13 greens out there. I think with how my short game’s been this week it’s something I’ve been able to fall back on, which has been great.”

To be fair, Rory is still Rory off the tee. He’s eighth this week in strokes gained: off the tee and second in driving distance, which at Muirfield Village is an accomplishment considering host Jack Nicklaus’ mission is to take driver out of the hands of the game’s top players.

Where the challenge has come is from the fairway and, despite his lofty status among the leaders, Saturday’s effort was his statistically worst of the week with just 7 of 18 greens in regulation and a loss to the field (1.71 shots) in strokes gained: approach the green.

Still, he’s the easy favorite with 18 holes remaining and for good reason. Other than Kim, who has four PGA Tour victories including the 2017 Players Championship, the next six players on the board have a combined four Tour victories.

“It’s a big tournament and I’ve got quite a bit of experience in that and you would like to think that gives you a little bit of an advantage,” McIlroy said. “Everyone’s going to go out there tomorrow and, regardless of where you are in the tournament, this golf course makes you a little uncomfortable anyway. So, everyone’s going to be feeling like that. With the way the leaderboard is and how bunched it is, it’s just going to come down to who can sort of hold their head the most coming down the stretch.”




Scottie Scheffler isn’t happy with what he’s been putting out on the course as of late, despite some solid results.


Considering his own assessment of his swing, keeping a positive outlook doesn’t seem to be a problem for McIlroy this week. It might have something to do with what has admittedly been a rough couple of weeks, which stretch back to his missed cut at the Masters. Or it might just be the opportunity.

When he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2018, it was two years after that tournament’s host and legend had died. For a player who grew up idolizing The King, it was a bittersweet accomplishment and a part of why Sunday at Muirfield Village is likely to mean more than the sum of its parts.

“To be able to walk up that hill from 18 and get that handshake from Jack would be pretty nice,” he said. “I won Arnold’s tournament a few years ago, but he had already passed by that time. So it would be so nice to be able to do it and have Jack be there.”

It’s been an interesting year for McIlroy both on and off the course, which at least partially explains a lightness in his step that had been missing. There was also a message from his sports psychologist, Bob Rotella, last week that appeared to resonate with the 23-time Tour winner: “You are going to win your fare share of golf tournaments. You tee it up to see what your fare share is.”



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Vladimir Guerrero Drives Home Winning Run, Jays Beat Mets



Jays 2 Mets 1

Off the top, I’m pretty sure that’s the worst job we’ve seen from a plate umpire this year. He had no clue where the strike zone was. John Schneider got thrown out of the game after a particularly bad strike call on Vladimir Guerrero in the ninth.

Fortunately, Vlad still doubled down the third base line to bring in the winning run. Pretty amazing job after being down 1-2. George Springer had a one-out single and steal.

Our only other run came in the sixth. Brandon Belt led off with a double. Matt Chapman walked. Two outs later, Alejandro Kirk, singled home Belt.


We had the bases loaded in the first but couldn’t get a run in. There were other chances but no luck.

In all we had 10 hits. Springer, Bichette, Belt and Kirk had two each. Chapman, Merrifield and Kiermaier had the 0 fors.

Jose Berrios was terrific. 5 innings, 4 hits, 3 walks and 6 strikeouts. 1 earned, scoring in the second inning, when he gave up a single to Starling Marte and a double to Daniel Vogelbach. But then he got three quick outs, and the Mets didn’t do much against him the rest of the way.

Trevor Richards, Nate Pearson (getting the win) and Erik Swanson (save #1 of the season), each pitched a scoreless inning. I didn’t understand pulling Richards after the one inning, but it all worked out. I think Pearson would have stayed out for another inning if the Jays didn’t take the lead.

Jays of the Day: Vlad (.310 WPA), Belt (.222), Swanson (.177), Berrios (.164), Pearson (.098) and Richards (.082).

The Other Award: Merrifield (-.376 for his 0 for) and Kiermaier (-.175 for his 0 for).

Tomorrow the Jays go for the sweep with Yusei Kikuchi (6-2, 4.47) vs. Kodai Senga (5-3, 3.44). It is to be a 1:30 Eastern start, but then today’s was to be a 4:00 Eastern start but the Mets had Al Leiter talking for 30 minutes about how great he was.



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