Two nights after the Toronto Raptors clinched their first playoff berth in five years, they will be tested by last season’s NBA champions.
The Raptors visit the Miami Heat on Tuesday in a matchup between Eastern Conference teams jockeying for postseason position.
Toronto (41-32) has won five of its last six games to guarantee at least a .500 finish for the first time since 2001-02, but the Raptors have their sights set on loftier goals.
“It’s general excitement right now because we still have two more goals ahead of us,” said Chris Bosh, who is averaging 24.7 points and 16.0 rebounds during the team’s three-game winning streak. “We want to get home court advantage and we want to lock up the Atlantic Division. We still have nine more games to play and we have to concentrate and focus on each game until we clinch both.”
The Raptors should be able to wrap up the division barring a collapse, as they lead second-place New Jersey by seven games.
Bosh had 24 points and 16 rebounds as Toronto clinched a playoff spot with its 107-94 win over Charlotte on Sunday. The Raptors, who opened the season 2-8, are now six wins away from matching the best record in the franchise’s 12-year history.
“These guys should all feel proud of themselves because when we were 2-8 everyone doubted us, but we didn’t have any doubt in that locker room that we were a good basketball team,” coach Sam Mitchell said.
Toronto will match up against another team that has recovered from early-season struggles.
The Heat (39-34) won only four of their first 12 games this season, but have gone 26-15 since Jan. 7 to move into sixth place in the East.
However, the defending NBA champions dropped one-half game behind the Washington Wizards for the Southeast Division lead with their 94-88 loss to Detroit on Sunday. Shaquille O’Neal had 23 points and eight rebounds, but only made five of his 11 free throws.
“This is a very disappointing loss for us,” Heat coach Pat Riley said after his team lost for the fifth time in eight games after a nine-game winning streak. “We needed it.”
Miami got good news when leading scorer Dwyane Wade practiced with the team on Monday, the first time he’d taken part in a full workout since dislocating his left shoulder nearly six weeks ago. The 2006 NBA finals MVP has missed 20 games since sustaining the injury against Houston on Feb. 21.
“He looks OK. He’s missed a long time. He’s in as good a shape as he can be in,” Riley said. “It’s going to be a process.”
Wade’s return is still at least a week away. He said Sunday that he’d like to play in one or two games before the playoffs begin, but indicated Monday he’s open to playing more if his shoulder responds well in the coming days.
“You never know,” Wade said. “I can’t predict the future. Four or five games, I would love it, but I don’t think they’d let me right now.”
Jason Kapono, the league’s leading 3-point shooter at 51.3 percent, is expected to return to the Miami lineup soon - possibly for this contest. Kapono hasn’t played since injuring his ankle March 5.
“We’re missing some scoring, we’re missing some outside shooting,” O’Neal said. “So once we get everybody back, we can catch a little fire.”
Miami had a four-game winning streak against Toronto snapped in its 96-83 loss last Wednesday. The season series is tied at one game apiece.