The third time was a charm for the Toronto Raptors, after they finally won a first round series as the higher seed. The last time the Raptors were in the second round was in 2001, after they beat the New Yorks Knicks led by Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell, and later on lost to the Philadelphia 76ers and the league MVP, Allen Iverson.
Times have really changed since the last time the Raptors were in the position that they’re in, which is having a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors have never made it that far in a playoff run, but after a franchise record 56-win season, they’ve proven they have the talent to advance.
In their way are the Miami Heat, a team filled with veterans and former teammates of LeBron James, the usual Goliath that stands at the top of the East. After not making last year’s playoffs, their new roster still has a lot to prove after beating an injured Charlotte Hornets team in seven games.
The Raptors faced the same situation against Paul George and the Indiana Pacers, but they’ll be looking to fix their mistakes when they start their seven game series against the Heat on Tuesday May 3, at 8:00 EST in the Air Canada Centre.
Season Series Breakdown: Raptors won 3-1
Game 1: Nov 8, 2015 Raptors lose 96-76
The Raptors didn’t have anything going for them when they lost by 20 points in their first matchup of the season against the Miami Heat. They shot 39.4 per cent from the field, and 19.4 per cent from 3-point distance.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan struggled to find their touch, combining for 31 points on 9-30 shooting. Jonas Valanciunas led the Raptors with 17 points, but wasn’t able to have a bigger impact on the game with only 12 field goal attempts.
Hassan Whiteside and Chris Bosh played big roles for a Heat team that also struggled to find their rhythm. Bosh led all scorers with 23 points behind 4-7 3-point shooting, while Whiteside had 20 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocks. The presence of the Heat’s bigs also helped them out-rebound the Raptors 48-38.
Game 2: Dec. 18, 2015 Raptors win 108-94
Without DeMarre Carroll and Valanciunas in the lineup, DeRozan stepped up with 30 points to lead the Raptors to victory. Bismack Biyombo was also great stepping into a starter’s role, leading the Raptors with 15 rebounds, and helping them beat the Heat 38-34 in that category.
Lowry and Luis Scola also had 20-point showcases, to help the Raptors shoot 51.3 per cent from the field. Terrence Ross added a spark off the bench, going 5-8 from beyond the arc for 17 points that night.
The Heat’s backcourt of Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic was solid, combining for 39 points on 16-29 shooting and 10 assists. But they also committed 10 of their team’s 13 turnovers, which limited the Heat’s chances of keeping up with the Raptors high level offence.
Game 3: Jan. 22, 2016 Raptors win 101-81
The Raptors were once again led to victory by another great performance by DeRozan, who scored 33 points on 48 per cent shooting. He scored in many different ways, such as by attacking the rim and by going 4-5 from 3-point land.
Toronto was on fire in general from distance, shooting 52 per cent. The Heat struggled from the field, only making 40.7 per cent of their shots, and 23.5 per cent of their attempts from beyond the arc. Their poor shooting overshadowed Wade’s and Bosh’s stellar performances, after they combined for 28 points and were the only Heat players in double-digits for scoring.
Valanciunas was strong down low for the Raptors in his limited minutes, leading both teams with 13 rebounds and 3 blocks. Without Hassan Whiteside, the Heat were still able to beat the Raptors 42-41 on the glass.
Game 4: March 12, 2016 Raptors win 112-104 OT
The Raptors were able to win their third straight game against the Heat, after beating them 15-7 in overtime.
The Heat showed off their versatility in this game with Wade not playing, since five players scored in double-digits. They were led by Joe Johnson‘s 28 points and Luol Deng‘s 20, as they picked up the majority of the offensive load for a Heat team that was shooting 37.8 per cent from the field.
The Raptors had many options on offence, but it was DeRozan who stole the show with a 38-point performance. Lowry struggled from the field with 25 per cent shooting, but still contributed 16 points. Valanciunas recorded a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but they still lost 47-42 on the glass to the Heat.
Lowry won’t have an easy task when he goes against Dragic, requiring him to put in his best effort on both ends of the floor.
Against the Pacers, Lowry wasn’t able to find his rhythm shooting the basketball, only converting on 31.6 per cent of his shots. He was still able to lead his team by finding open shots for his teammates, which led to him averaging 7.6 assists. As long as Lowry continues to make smart plays on offence and not force his shot, he’ll continue to help the Rpators.
Defensively, he’ll need to make sure Dragic doesn’t have the same impact he had in the Heat’s Game 7 win over the Hornets, when he led them with 25 points. Dragic may not be on an All-Star team anymore, but he was a third team All-NBA team guard in the 2013-14 season. With his electric guard play, he can be a terror for Lowry who’s played the second most minutes in the postseason so far.
— NBA (@NBA) May 1, 2016
Lowry wasn’t the only all-star guard to have a horrible shooting series, with DeRozan converting on 31.9 per cent of his attempts to average 17.9 points against the Pacers.
Raptors fans should feel a bit relieved that DeRozan averaged 29.3 points on 48.8 per cent shooting against the Heat this year. His style of play reminds NBA fans a lot of Wade, who’s midrange game has made him an icon. They will be able to go head-to-head with one another by exchanging buckets, but it’s not likely we see either player take a chance at guarding their crafty counterpart.
Game 7 ⚡️ Warning. pic.twitter.com/xz5llyTVJM
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 1, 2016
After Game 6 in the Heat versus Hornets series, it’s clear that Wade hasn’t lost any of his ability to be clutch down the stretch of games. He’ll be a problem for the Raptors, since he can create his offence in many different ways, such as posting up defenders. The Raptors will be in trouble if they can’t find a way to contain the 19 points on 47.1 per cent shooting, 5.4 rebounds and 5 assists he’s averaged for the Heat against the Hornets.
Norman Powell may be the latest and greatest news for the Raptors, but Carroll will stay in his starters role because of his veteran experience.
He’ll have an easier job this series guarding Johnson, compared to George who averaged 27.3 points against the Raptors. That isn’t to say that Johnson isn’t going to be a tough cover, after he averaged 13.4 points on 51.8 per cent shooting from the field and 41.7 per cent from 3-point distance throughout the season for the Heat.
If Johnson is having his way with Carroll, Powell will most likely play more minutes. They’re both known as defensive stoppers, and the Raptors main priority will be to stop the Heat from scoring in bunches- which is Johnson’s speciality.
At this point, it seems like the Raptors won’t have to worry about Bosh, their former franchise player. The Heat still won’t let Bosh play after he recovered from blood clots, even with his constant pressure.
Instead Patrick Patterson will have to be ready to play against the Deng, the Heat’s best player in the playoffs so far. Deng leads the Heat with Wade in averaging 19 points, while shooting 54.1 per cent from the field and 51.3 per cent shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Because of his defensive prowess, it’s likely he’ll spend a lot of time guarding DeRozan. If that’s the case, the Heat will have to have Wade guarding Patterson.
Since being moved to the starting lineup in Game 5, Patterson has continued to produce at a high level. With his long frame, he should be able to continue to shoot over defenders and stretch the floor. Against the Pacers, he averaged 8.7 points while shooting 41.7 per cent from beyond the arc.
The centre position should be the most entertaining matchup, with two big men that filled the stat sheet in the first round, with limited minutes.
Valanciunas turned a lot of heads against the Pacers, averaging 13.6 points on 50 per cent shooting, 11.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots. He didn’t get as many touches and shot attempts as he deserved, but he stayed active enough to pick up the most offensive rebounds (35) in the first round across the NBA.
Whiteside of the Miami Heat, has been doing incredible things as well. He led all players in the first round in blocks (24), while averaging 13.1 points on 69.8 per cent shooting, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.4 blocked shots. Whiteside also dealt with a hand and thigh issue during the first round, and it’s now unclear what’s his current situation.
With Scola and Terrence Ross playing under 14 minutes a game, Powell, Cory Joseph, and Biyombo are the biggest threats the Raptors have coming off their bench.
Toronto has tied it all up! https://t.co/ICHa9QTFkm
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 27, 2016
Powell has become a cult hero in Toronto with his great defence on George, and clutch baskets against the Pacers. Joseph is the Raptors most underrated player, making it a mystery why coach Dwane Casey hasn’t played him more minutes. In his 23 minutes of action, Joseph has averaged 10.7 points on an outstanding 58.7 field goal percentage and 55.6 3-point clip. Biyombo remains the same boost of energy for the Raptors off the bench, being the only player to average at least 9 rebounds in less than 20 minutes in the playoffs.
The Heat on the other hand, have been relying on their rookie combo of Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson– who are both energetic and athletic studs. Gerald Green might also become a problem for the Raptors off the bench, after he broke out of his slump with 16 points against the Hornets in Game 7.
WHAT. A. SEQUENCE.
Defense ➡️ offense pic.twitter.com/bRpSkkdmNC
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 1, 2016
Dwane Casey won his first series as a head coach when the Raptors defeated the Pacers in Game 7, while Erik Spoelstra won his 15th in their Game 7 win against the Hornets.
The Raptors didn’t show enough of a level of consistency throughout their first round series, for coach Casey to be expected to beat a coach with two championships. Spoelstra has the luxury of coaching some proven veterans on his team, but he’s shown he’s more than capable of making this relatively new Heat squad competitive once again.
Erik Spoelstra is now 9-4 in elimination games, highest winning percentage among active head coaches (min 10 games). pic.twitter.com/P3UkbOhYHH
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 1, 2016
After the Raptors nearly gave up a 16-point lead in the 4th quarter of a do-or-die Game 7, it’s hard to believe Casey knows how to bring out a level of consistency in the Raptors. Their style of iso-ball through Lowry and DeRozan rarely worked, leading to many unpredictable runs by both teams. The Raptors are also currently shooting 39.3 per cent from the field, the worst field goal percentage of all the teams to advance to the second round,
Cage’s Keys to the Series
Protect the 3-Point Line
The Toronto Raptors were horrible at protecting the 3-point line against the Pacers, allowing them to shoot 38.3 per cent. In games that the Pacers won, they shot 42.4 per cent, which is a lot better than the 35.6 per cent clip they held in losses.
Of all the teams to advance, the Raptors allowed the highest opponent 3-point percentage, which won’t hold well against the Heat. In their first round series against the Hornets, they came out on fire shooting 40.6 per cent, with six players shooting over 40 per cent from distance. That doesn’t even include Richardson, who’s been shooting 52.7 per cent from 3-point distance since February.
With the Heat having eight players that average one or more 3-pointers a game, Dwane Casey will have to try a lot of different lineups with an array of wing players. A lineup that has played surprising well for the Raptors is one consisting of Biyombo, DeRozan, Powell, Joseph and Lowry. In their 10 minutes together in the playoffs, they’ve held a defensive rating of 70.6, and an offensive rating of 102.3.
With Deng playing power forward and most likely guarding DeRozan, this lineup sizes up with Miami’s multiple wings and ball handlers. If Deng becomes too much for DeRozan to handle, they can replace him with Carroll.
Feed Valanciunas the Ball
The Raptors failed to continue to capitalize on Valanciunas’ dominant performance after the first two games of the series against the Pacers. In their Game 2 victory, Valanciunas finished with 23 points on 10-18 shooting, and 15 rebounds. The next fives games, he would only reach double digits on field goal attempts once more. Since he’s shooting 50 per cent from the field, the Raptors should try to get him more touches with DeRozan and Lowry both shooting under 35 per cent.
Whiteside did finish his series against the Hornets with 24 blocked shots, but it’s nothing the Raptors haven’t seen before with Myles Turner of the Pacers swatting away 23 of his own. Instead, Whiteside failed to capitalize on both ends of the floor playing one-on-one against Al Jefferson, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller and Spencer Hawes.
Big Al was able to use move after move on Whiteside, who picked up careless fouls. Whiteside fouled out in Game 6, while in Games 2-4 he picked up 4 or more personal fouls. Valanciunas should do the exact same thing, in an effort to score the Raptors easy points while getting ride of one of the Heat’s biggest weapons.
Don’t Make It All About the All-Stars
Lowry and DeRozan couldn’t buy a bucket against the Pacers, combining for 31.8 per cent shooting from the field and 16.4 per cent shooting from 3-point distance.
DeRozan might of used up all his luck in Game 7, when he became the 4th player in NBA history to win a playoff game after scoring 30 points on less than 32 per cent shooting. LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant are the other 3 players, and they’ve all only done it once.
The Raptors have plenty of other options they can use to score, instead of forcing isolation plays on their all-star duo. If they choose the same path as in they did in Indiana, the Heat have enough elite defenders to stop DeRozan and Lowry from getting want they want on offence.
Deng was Tom Thibodeau’s prodigy in Chicago, the rookie combo of Richardson and Winslow already suffocated the Hornets, and Wade is still one of the smartest defenders in the game, with three second All-NBA defensive team appearances.
My prediction: Heat in 5
All stats for this article are from NBA.com and BasketballReference.com
You can follow Bryan Meler on Twitter @BryanMelo97
We got a few of our writers to give us their individual takes. There might be a little bit of bias.
Aaron: The Raptors got through the first round in what proved to be a tougher than expected match up. Miami to me seems like an even tougher opponent. They have big name players with a lot of high pressure play off experience. Toronto overall matches up better against the Heat but the likes of Dwayne Wade, Joe Johnson Goran Dragic, Loul Deng seem to spell danger for a Raptors side that skimmed through. Maybe because the curse is broken now and the pressure is reduced the Raptors will come through with key performances from the big names but this Miami line up is very athletic and has depth across the floor which gives me the feeling the Raptors will have more difficulty on the boards and in the paint which at times was a big factor in the Indiana series. I would love to be wrong and the series could go either way but due to those veterans and Miami’s ability to give teams trouble down low I’m taking the Heat in 6.
J.R.: If you thought the Pacers were a hard time, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside is certainly a call for concern. The Heat aren’t as good defensively however, which should mean the all-star backcourt having more room to operate. Miami is quite the offensive threat, but with how stacked the Raptors’ perimeter is with Carroll, Joseph, Powell and Biyombo defensively, it won’t be impossible. All you need to know, is there isn’t a Paul George-type of talent to worry about in this series. There seems to be a sigh of relief now that the pressure is slightly off, considering they’ve finally defeated their demons. The Raps match up well with the Heat who play a small-ball brand, and the Raps’ defence is certainly much stronger then the Heat’s, who rely constantly on Whiteside’s presence. Raps in 5.
Goode: With how the Raptors closed out their last series I’m a little surprised that they’re in this position to begin with. DeMar and Lowry both had historically bad first round performances, however I’m still not convinced it’s enough for the front office to keep them together. The Raptors reached their goal, but now it’s time to exceed all expectations and make a serious run. The Raptors match-up better against the Heat and have the players capable of limiting the likes of Dwyane Wade and hopefully Joe Johnson. The Raptors will be able to push the ball more often against the Heat because they aren’t nearly as effective in transition than the Pacers. The series will come down to execution from the head coaches. Erik Spolestra has been to the big show and has seen success on the grandest stage. Ujiri kissing Casey in the press conference may have saved him another season, but this round will show if the Raptors are truly pretenders or contenders. Raptors in 6
Chetan: If you take the past 7 games as a sample size. The Raptors looks inferior to an ailing Miami team. Quite frankly, the Raptors showed us some of the ugliest basketball I have seen in decades. If it wasn’t for Corey Joseph and Norman Powell with flashes of brilliance from Bismack Biyombo and JV, the Raps would be heading to the golf course. If the Raps continue to play this inefficient “empty the clip” style of basketball they will be out in 4. However, I am hoping Casey sees the potential in Joseph and Powell and gives them both extended minutes. Place, DeMarre Carroll on Joe Johnson, and have Powel on Wade. Also, hopefully Kyle Lowry and Derozan can get their all star mojo back with less pressure on them to win. If all this happens, I still see a long drawn out series against a veteran team that knows how to fight. Raptors in 7.
Manny: Lowry and DeMar didn’t show up last series and that really made it difficult for us. The Raptors may have gotten away with a lack of effort from their all stars against Indiana but that won’t work against Miami. The heat have no shortage of offensive and defensive options as they boast what is arguably the deepest roster in the league. While Chris Bosh’s absence is unfortunate, his presence would create big problems for the Dino’s. There is no way this series will be any easier for the Raptors than the Indy series was. The Heat have been there. They’ve constantly been a threat in the East and have somebody whose tormented Toronto during the playoffs in the past: Joe Johnson. However, the boys from the 6ix also have some intriguing options. The matchup I’m excited for is Dwyane Wade vs Norman Powell. Both are 6’4 and are insanely fierce competitors. While it’s great to have this monkey off our back, Miami will test us more so than the Pacers. If Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can play the way they did during the season, Jonas Valanciunas continues his dominance and we get key contributions from Cory Joseph and Norm, this team will be bound for the ECF. I’m expecting this series to go all the way and the Raptors to win in 7.
Sachin: The monkey is off. Because of that, I truly feel that this team is going to be more relaxed and just play. If we see the Raptors team that was elite across the board in the regular season, this series shouldn’t be difficult. Miami should honestly be an easier opponent – weaker backcourt defense, no superstar, and a more relaxed Raptors team should all bode well. Expect a much better performance from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. However, this Heat team is well coached and experienced, which should still make things tough. With that said, I expect the Raptors to win this one in 6 games because they are simply the better team.
Nakosi: The Raptors would certainly have fewer things to be concerned about if the Charlotte Hornets had handled their business and close out the Miami series but the Heat aren’t exactly the scariest team in the world either. This series will come down to which team controls the boards. The Raptors depended heavily on their rebounding advantage to narrowly escape the Pacers but the Heat have perhaps the most terrorizing interior presence in the league right now in Hassan Whiteside and his play will dictate the series more dramatically than any other player on either team. The Raptors will make reactionary adjustments based on how well/poorly he can defend the paint without fouling. Being that the Northerners depend on getting to the line for a large chunk of their offense it will be interesting to see how they attack the interior. Also key to note is that the Heat don’t shoot or make a lot of three pointers so there is room for another advantage to be had if they can knock the shots down. Ultimately this series will be better suited for the Raptors’ natural style of play and I do see them having more advantages than they would have had Bosh been healthy. Raptors in a less dramatic 6.
It’ll be tough, but I’m picking Raptors in 7. There are a bunch of positives and negatives for the Dinos in this matchup.
Pros: Miami is not a great 3-point shooting team, which has been the Raps’ Achilles heel; there’s no scary defenders on Miami who could slow down DeRozan quite like Paul George did; and the Raptors have the deeper roster in addition to home court.
Cons: Miami has infinitely more experience on both their roster and coaching staff; Whiteside could have a huge series against the drive-heavy Raptors; and Kyle Lowry’s shot looks worse than mine.
But I’m an eternal optimist, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned during the playoffs, it’s that these series are completely unpredictable so why do we even bother?