The first night of the play-in tournament made for a fun viewing experience. The Atlanta Hawks surprisingly were the much tougher team against the Miami Heat, securing a whopping 22 offensive rebounds on their way to a 116-105 victory on the road. The Hawks will now play Boston in the first round of their playoffs. Hopefully, Trae Young can get hot and steal a game or two. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers avoided embarrassment, coming back from a 15-point deficit to secure a 108-102 overtime win over Minnesota. The Lakers will head to Memphis for the first round. The losers of those two games will have one more chance against the winners of tonight’s contest, so let’s get to those.
Toronto Raptors (41-41) vs. Chicago Bulls (40-42) - 7:00pm ET - ESPN
This game is the battle of organizations that many people thought should have made rebuilding moves, but didn’t. The Raptors actually traded away draft capital to bring back Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline. The Bulls had a quiet deadline, and then signed Chicago native Patrick Beverley as a post-buyout waiver claim.
Both teams have improved since those moves. Toronto is 15-11 since the trade, improving to a plus-3.0 net rating over that time period. Chicago’s improvement has been ever more dramatic. The Bulls have gone 14-9 since the Beverley pick-up, with the third-best net rating in the league since that point (plus-5.7).
Toronto won two of the three meetings between the clubs this season, with home teams winning all three games, which would bode well for the Raptors tonight north of the border. Both groups come into this game with a fairly clean injury report; only the players out for the season already are listed (Otto Porter, Jr. for Toronto and Lonzo Ball for Chicago).
These teams might be better than their records indicate. But one will be done for the season after tonight, while the other will have to beat Miami on the road to even make the playoffs, where top-seeded Milwaukee awaits. So should they have sold off and make some rebuilding moves? I guess everyone can form their own opinion.
New Orleans Pelicans (42-40) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-42) - 9:30pm ET - ESPN
Ah, what could have been for the Pelicans. A talented roster was struck down by injuries, with Zion Williamson only appearing in 29 games and likely to remain out even if New Orleans makes the playoffs, and Brandon Ingram suiting up for just 45 contests (but back now). Everyone’s second-favorite backcourt steals pest Jose Alvarado (T.J. McConnell is obviously first) is also out tonight, while Larry Nance, Jr. is questionable with ankle soreness.
The Thunder didn’t let a season-ending injury to lottery pick Chet Holmgren prior to the season hold them back. Led by young star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was fourth in the league in scoring at 31.4 points per game, Oklahoma City is looking to get back to the playoffs after their own multi-year version of the Process. With practically half the league’s draft picks under their belt over the next five years or so, it would be terrific for the Thunder to get their young guys some early playoff experience.
The Pelicans went 3-1 against Oklahoma City this season, although the Thunder won the most recent meeting in New Orleans about a month ago. I mentioned the Pelicans’ injury report above; Kenrich Williams and Aleksej Pokusevski are out tonight for OKC. Either of these teams would be a fun story to make the playoffs, definitely moreso than the flailing, fighting Wolves who the winner will have to go through. We’ll see who prevails to head to Minnesota.