How They Got Here
• Toronto: By not making it easy.
As if they wanted to beat us to the bad punchline, Toronto dropped a home matinee Game 1 for the third postseason in a row. The team had just peeled off a franchise-record 56 wins, and no NBA team plays more home weekend matinees than these same Raptors, but none of this seems to matter once the klieg lights hit.
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The group rallied to take two games on the road in Indianapolis, but nearly squandered Game 7 at home – allowing a thin Pacer squad to make the deciding contest a one-possession game in the final minute. Though coach Dwane Casey did well to prime his rotation with plenty of opportunities, he was left reliant on tired “us against the world, boys”-motivation techniques despite entering the series with a No. 2 seed in the face of a team that needed until the last weekend of the regular season to make the playoffs.
• Miami: By, well, not making it easy.
The Heat outscored the Charlotte Hornets by 62 points in Miami’s seven-game win – 62 points, and they lost three games!
Unlike the scattershot Toronto/Indiana series, however, the Heat weren’t exactly stubbing their toes on the way toward the Conference semis. The team rarely turned the ball over, it did well to stay above the fray when challenged (even while losing), and coach Erik Spoelstra deftly managed his rotations on the fly. Amar’e Stoudemire is no longer in the picture – let’s put it that way.
In what in many ways may have been the NBA’s most entertaining opening round series (Heaven help us all), the Heat downed Charlotte 4-3 behind a monstrous and well-inspired Game 7 thrashing. In an odd amplification of a mediocre year offensively, five Heat players averaged double-figure points in the series even with Chris Bosh sitting on the bench. Luol Deng came out of nowhere to hit 20 of his 39 three-point attempts, Dwyane Wade somehow sealed a Game 6 win with his first (and then second!) three-pointers since December, and Heat stalwart Udonis Haslem actually played 27 in the series – once again allowing us to describe him as a “stalwart.”
All of this comes on the heels of a regular season that saw the team win 48 games, with Wade playing healthy and consistent basketball alongside the emerging in-prime talents of center Hassan Whiteside and point guard Goran Dragic.
Head to Head: Toronto took the season series by a 3-1 margin.
Miami’s lone win should probably be sloughed off due to the presence of one Christopher Wesson Bosh.
Bosh, who has sadly been out since the second week in February due to blood clots, scored 23 points on just 14 shots in a Nov. 8 win, declining to turn the ball over while pulling in eight rebounds in just 30 minutes. That kind of all-out play, unfortunately, won’t show up in the Conference semis, as Bosh hasn’t even accompanied the Heat to Toronto for Game 1. In an NBA still smarting over the absences of Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the loss of the brilliant, entertaining and avuncular Bosh remains the league’s most under-reported story.
From that early setback, the Raptors took control of things.
Perimeter players DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross combined for 68 points in a 108-94 win on Dec. 18, pitched on the second night of a back-to-back. With Heat starters Dragic and Whiteside out, Toronto pounced by 20 on Jan. 22, and with Wade out the Raptors prevailed by eight on March 12.
Likely Starting Lineups:
Toronto is to be credited for mixing things up.
Big forward Luis Scola remains a team favorite and clear leader, but after starting in each of the 76 regular season contests he appeared in and the first four games of Toronto’s opening round series against Indiana, former supersub Patrick Patterson got the call as lead power forward. This followed Norman Powell’s demotion from the front five in favor of the improving (after midseason knee surgery) DeMarre Carroll’s re-introduction as a starter in Game 2.
Patterson’s statistical contributions were modest, he added 23 points and eight rebounds in total as a starter, working around 25 minutes a game, but his noted ability to stretch his range past the three-point line kept the Pacers on edge. Carroll’s two-way work was more prominent; he tied for the Raptor points lead in Game 6 with 15 and scored in double-digits three times, alongside his stellar defense.
They’ll join Toronto’s All-Star backcourt of DeRozan and Lowry, with center Jonas Valanciunas jumping at center circle.
Miami goes top-heavy with the lineup we’ve been looking forward to for months, minus the much-missed Chris Bosh.
D-Wade and Goran Dragic start in the backcourt, with midseason addition Joe Johnson working as small forward alongside the slender Luol Deng at power forward. Hassan Whiteside mans the middle for Miami. Whiteside was used as a sixth man at times down the stretch of the regular season, but he has been working as a starter since April 10.
Matchups to Watch:
• DeMar DeRozan vs. Himself
The Raptors shooting guard averaged 33.7 points on 51 percent shooting in three wins over Miami this season, shooting 51 percent along the way, adding five assists and nearly seven rebounds per game. In Toronto’s one loss to the Heat, he missed nine of 14 shots and finished with 15 points, eight below his season average, with six turnovers.
Against Indiana, DeRozan hit just 31 percent of his shots, needing 19.7 shots to score his 17.9 points per game. He contributed a combined 6.2 rebounds/assists a contest. He wasn’t good.
It really is this simple.
DeMar can’t expect to act the part of his shooting guard counterpart – future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade – in his prime, but he can approximate things. The two share a love of getting to the free throw line and treating the three-point stripe like it was something created for those mugs in the ABA. With Wade’s head perpetually turned elsewhere defensively, watching the ball as he always has, DeRozan should have myriad opportunities to cut and clasp, creating scoring or passing opportunities on the fly.
If he isn’t able to move with alacrity and the offense bogs down, things will go sour yet again.
• Luol Deng vs. The Little Guys
The skinniest power forward left in the playoffs (depending on what you consider the far-less-likeable Al-Farouq Aminu’s position to be) won’t be bothered by bangers in this round.
Hornets (eventual) starting power forward Frank Kaminsky wasn’t exactly pulling Elvin Hayes moves on Deng in the first round, but there was at least the threat that Luol would be forced to battle with 7-footers and crash the glass. Versus Toronto, even if Raptors coach Dwane Casey dusts off Luis Scola (who hasn’t played since Game 4 against Indiana), Deng won’t be charged with fending off tradition power forward-types. The league has changed.
Deng will have to work his way around a litany of Raptor swingmen that will literally and figuratively be looking up to the 12-year veteran. Rookie Norman Powell will be chasing Deng off of his sweet spots, DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll will have a go, while starting power forward Patrick Patterson (who is at least an inch shorter) can hang.
Posting-up isn’t Deng’s strong suit, and the Heat shouldn’t make a point to clear out all other options just because he has a mouse in the house. Those sorts of schemes never work.
What they can do is create quick hit plays that allow a streaking Deng to cut his way toward freedom and the front of the rim, using his guile, length and touch to Miami’s advantage in ways that are far more creative than asking him to stand in the corner and hit 20-39 three-pointers again.
Now, if Deng wants to make nearly half of his three-pointers again, as he did against Charlotte, the Heat will certainly take it.
• Jonas Valanciunas vs. The Front of the Rim
Some 13 points and nearly 12 rebounds, at just 26 minutes a game, is a good haul for a center in this era. Especially going up against an (admittedly, hurting) Ian Mahinmi. The Raptors center even led the playoff ledge in rebounding there, for a while, and his decorated reserve (Bismack Biyombo) wasn’t far behind – he finished the Raptors series with 9.4 caroms per game, tops amongst playoff reserves.
What follows now will be an entirely different challenge. Mahinmi is floor-bound, using timing and savvy to toss you off your rhythm and beat you to a spot. Miami starting center Hassan Whiteside is hyperactive – one furrowed brow will send him into the air, ready to reject your shot with a flailing elbow
Whiteside led the NBA with 3.7 blocks per game and an even more ridiculous block percentage of nearly 10 percent, and he isn’t nearly the foul-prone bounder that you’d expect him to be. The guy can change games.
So can Jonas, as the Pacers learned during parts of the first round, when Raptor guards continually looked for him as he muscled his way toward the basketball ring after a screen and roll. If Whiteside is able to contest and recover, though, Valanciunas might have to pump-fake his way toward oblivion.
How the Raptors Could Win:
It comes down to health, and it’s hard to have a positive outlook in this realm.
Yes, DeMar DeRozan matched Kyle Lowry’s 31 percent shooting in the first round without the excuse of merely having one working arm, but his work could always return to the mean. With Lowry, dealing with a painful right elbow injury, you don’t get the same feeling. It’s to his credit that he’s gutted things out for so long, and while that injury won’t get in the way of him hounding Goran Dragic (in spite of Pacer guard George Hill going off for an 8-11 shooting night in Sunday’s Game 7), the poor shooting could sustain.
The Raptors badly need Lowry to be a force, breaking up backpedaling defenses in transition and saving broken plays. The painful elbow is no excuse to fading to his left on long jumpers. If his aim isn’t true or, worse, if his confidence is (understandably) shot due to the bum elbow, the Raptors are toast.
Which would be a damned shame.
How the Heat Could Win:
The Heat, despite the veteran stereotype, are a slithery presence. Whiteside changes things. Wade isn’t just a fluke-y late-game contributor, and Joe Johnson is the king of making something efficient out of broken plays. If anyone is going to get a call against a driving DeMar DeRozan, it’s Udonis Haslem, and Dragic’s confidence can’t help be growing after two weeks spent funneling Kemba Walker into help.
This is a No. 3 seed, and we’re not overreacting to Toronto’s underwhelming Game 7 win and Miami’s dominant turn in its own Game 7 conquest. If all these giant basketball brains are moving the ball and not declining attempts at great shots, this is a formidable outfit.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: nine out of 10.
The combined mix of Toronto-level paranoia, the potential return of DeRozan, and the growing ability for the Deng/Dragic/Whiteside/Wade/Johnson lineup to play on a string is far too compelling to pass on.
Also, the games start at a reasonable time, which helps.
Prediction: Miami in 6.
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