Bulls, Raptors battle for playoff positioning

Two teams dueling for the 10th and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference will go head-to-head Thursday night when the Chicago Bulls visit the Toronto Raptors in Tampa, Fla.

The Bulls have won two straight after a six-game skid, and the Raptors are coming off a loss that followed two consecutive wins as the teams prepare to meet for the second of three times this season.

Chicago (21-28) has a leg up on Toronto (20-31) not only in the standings but also in the first tiebreaker, having prevailed 118-95 in a March 14 meeting in Chicago. The three-game season series is slated to be completed May 13 in the Windy City.

The Bulls have put their new look on full display in beating Brooklyn and Indiana in their past two games, with Orlando import Nikola Vucevic averaging 27 points and 15 rebounds in the wins.

A deeper bench bolstered by the addition of Daniel Theis at the trade deadline also has contributed to the wins. Theis had 10 points in the triumph over the Nets, while Lauri Markkanen and Coby White combined for 28 as reserves against the Pacers.

Rookie Patrick Williams, who had 23 points in the win over the Raptors last month, chipped in with double-figure scoring (11 and 10 points) in the Bulls’ two most recent victories.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan noted after Tuesday’s win over Indiana that he’s been impressed with the transition of Vucevic and Zach LaVine, two high scorers, into complementary pieces.

“Zach needs to be who he is and Vooch needs to be who he is, and as long as we’re generating good shots and we’re efficient with what we’re doing offensively, I really don’t care who gets the shots,” Donovan said. “And I think those guys would say the same thing. For as great of a scorer as Zach is and for as great of a scorer as Vooch is, these guys are team guys and want to win.”

Toronto played short-handed in its 110-101 home loss to the Lakers on Tuesday, with Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry among the key players missing. The Raptors were walking on eggshells Wednesday in hopes the NBA would not suspend OG Anunoby after his ejection from Tuesday’s game that resulted from a scuffle with Montrezl Harrell.

Gary Trent Jr. and Malachi Flynn helped fill voids with 11 points apiece. For Flynn, it was his third straight game scoring in double figures after having done so just once in Toronto’s first 48 contests.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Flynn’s progression into more of a scorer began when the coaches instructed him to be more aggressive offensively instead of worrying about running the show.

“We’ve asked him to really start attacking the rim,” Nurse explained. “Like right up the floor, when he sees an opening, he’s got to shoot in there. If he can blast through there and gets a few layups here and there, that goes a long way to helping our offense.”

Thursday’s game completes a four-game homestand for the Raptors and continues a five-game trip for the Bulls.