Bulls-Raptors Preview

The Toronto Raptors have lost 17 of their last 24 games and

won’t have their superstar for the rest of the regular season after

he suffered a facial fracture earlier this week.

In the race for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot,

that’s still enough to keep them in the driver’s seat – for

now.

The Chicago Bulls have done little over the past week to take

advantage of the Raptors’ ongoing woes, but they’ll get a chance to

add to them Sunday at Air Canada Centre in a game that could all

but decide the No. 8 seed.

Toronto (38-41) was in fifth place in the East and had its

sights set on earning home-court advantage for the first round as

of Feb. 23, when it held a 2 1/2-game lead on the sixth-place Bulls

(38-41).

A 10-game losing streak with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah

sidelined dropped Chicago temporarily out of the playoff picture,

while the Raptors have been in a prolonged slump.

Things appeared to be looking up after a three-game winning

streak from March 29-April 3, but Toronto has lost its last four –

the last three without Chris Bosh. The five-time All-Star suffered

a nasal fracture in a loss at Cleveland on Tuesday, and the Raptors

fell 115-104 to Boston the next night and 107-101 in Atlanta on

Friday to briefly fall a half-game behind the Bulls.

“It ain’t going our way, man,” guard Sonny Weems said. “It’s

crazy.”

The Raptors caught a break less than an hour later. Chicago,

which fell to Milwaukee on Tuesday before beating a Cleveland team

without LeBron James on Thursday, lost 127-116 in double overtime

at New Jersey – its second loss to the NBA-worst Nets.

“I hope this makes us stronger, because we have to play tougher

to get into the playoffs,” said Rose, who had 25 points before

fouling out in the second overtime. “We just have to fight through

it. The next one is very important. We only have a small amount of

games and there is no room for error now.”

Toronto leads the season series 2-0, so it’ll own the tiebreaker

regardless of Sunday’s result. The only way the Bulls can make the

playoffs with a loss would be to close with wins over Boston and at

Charlotte while the Raptors lose at Detroit and at home against the

New York Knicks.

Should Chicago win Sunday, Toronto would only need the Bulls to

slip up once provided it can win its last two.

“It’s like a playoff game already,” Weems said.

The Raptors have some injury concerns aside from Bosh, who had

averaged 24.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.6 steals in leading

Toronto to five straight wins over Chicago. Hedo Turkoglu,

averaging just 7.6 points in his last eight games, bumped heads

with Boston’s Tony Allen on Wednesday and is wearing a protective

mask.

The bad luck continued when guard Antoine Wright sprained his

ankle late in the third quarter against the Hawks. He’s unlikely to

play Sunday, leaving the Raptors without perhaps their best

perimeter defender.

Noah, the Bulls’ top defensive presence, is starting to see his

minutes increase as he recovers from plantar fasciitis. He played

nearly 36 minutes in the loss to the Nets – his most since Jan. 20

– but logged only 12 seconds spanning the two overtimes.

Coach Vinny Del Negro said that was because Noah had reached his

35-minute limit, but according to the Bulls’ official Web site,

general manager Gar Forman gave Del Negro the go-ahead to play Noah

in the extra sessions.