Coming off an uninspiring loss in Detroit, the Bulls return home to face the Raptors tonight on Comcast SportsNet Plus. Coverage begins at 6:30 with Pregame Live, followed by Postgame Live after the game's completion.
The Raptors entered the 2012-'13 with many expectations, but a major deal at the trade deadline and the insertion of young players has given the team a different look.
At the top of the new-look Raptors is rookie Jonas Valanciunas. The fifth-overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft -- who played last year in Lithuania because of a $2.5 million buyout with his European club -- missed 18 games in January with a broken finger, but it did not require surgery and he has come back even stronger in his rookie season. In his last 11 games, he has averaged 15.7 points on 62.7 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds in 33.2 minutes. His presence has helped a Raptors team that lost former first-overall pick Andrea Bargnani to an elbow injury in early March. Bargnani has missed the last 14 games and is out for the season with an avulsion sprain. He is not expected back in Toronto next season, despite having two years left on his contract, making Valanciunas' progression all the more important.
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While Valanciunas is a key to the Raptors' future, so is mid-season acquisition Rudy Gay. Toronto traded for the All-Star swingman a week before the trade deadline, sending point guard Jose Calderon to the Pistons and power forward Ed Davis to the Grizzlies as part of a three-team, six-player deal. The Raptors were able to snag Gay below his market value as Memphis looked to dump salary -- Gay is owed more than $37 million the next two seasons -- and with younger replacements ready to fill in for the lost starters.
Gay has averaged 19.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in 35 minutes per game since making the move above the U.S. border, and while the Raptors are just 13-18 since the move, they now have the star they thought they were getting in Bargnani three years ago. He's had an up-and-down April -- with scoring outputs of 34, 6, 26 and 4 points in four contests -- yet has averaged 14.0 points in two games against the Bulls this year (both with the Grizzlies).
In the 31 games since Gay was traded, point guard Kyle Lowry and forward Amir Johnson -- Calderon's and Davis' respective receivers of increased minutes and roles in the rotation -- have seen mixed results. Lowry is averaging 9.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists in that span, down from his season averages, while Johnson has increased his numbers to 10.4 points on 56 percent shooting and 8.7 rebounds. This younger core didn't help the Raptors qualify for postseason play, but the future is bright if they -- along with rookie Terrence Ross third-year guard DeMar DeRozan -- pan out.
As it stands tonight, the Raptors have lost six of eight in the United States and fell in overtime to the Bulls back in January. The Bulls are two games behind the Brooklyn Nets for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and just one game ahead of the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. With plenty of playoff positioning up for grabs, Tom Thibodeau's group -- winners of four straight at the United Center -- will need to continue their hot streak.
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