Game-Day Preview - Raptors vs. Heat



And now things might get very interesting.

The Toronto Raptors face the Miami Heat tonight in a game which has definite playoff implications heading down the stretch. Miami finds itself essentially tied with Toronto for third in the Eastern Conference heading into tonight’s affair and it’s not impossible that either team could meet in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Therefore tonight’s match could be a good litmus test in terms of how ready the Raptors are for Miami and its diesl-ish center.

It should also, and perhaps more importantly, be a good gauge of the team’s spirit coming off Monday night’s horror show that saw the club play completely underwhelming basketball against perhaps the league’s worst team and of course lose Jorge Garbajosa for the year due to injury. Garbajosa will likely be out for six months after having surgery yesterday to repair a fractured left fibula, dislocated ankle joint and torn ligament in his leg.

Yep, pretty nasty stuff. However as team-mate and best friend Jose Calderon pointed out, it could have been worse.

Initially after seeing the injury Monday night one couldn’t help but think of Shaun Livingston and the words "career-ending" invariably flashed through people’s minds. Right now it simply looks like some serious rehab work and if anyone’s up to that challenge, it’s Garbajosa.

However in Jorge’s absence, we’re really going to see what this team is made of. Coupled with the loss of Andrea Bargnani for an undetermined period of time, it’s now going to be on Mo Pete and Joey Graham to show and prove. Both have been inconsistent this season however have the ability to buoy the club and keep the Raptors firmly in the hunt for the third overall spot in the East.

Unfortunately as of now I have about as much confidence in Graham stepping up more than once every five games as I do in Brampton Hardwood’s customer service. Especially when I read articles like this one this morning courtesy of Dave Feschuk. I mean, could we see Luke Jackson go from solid D League player to integral piece of a playoff team? Has that ever happened before?

And with two "3’s" now out for Toronto, who gets the nod tonight? Will we see a line-up of Ford, Parker, Graham, Bosh and Nesterovic as is expected? And if Joey struggles, will Sam be forced to start Dixon and move Parker to the 3 spot? And is it possible that Jackson impresses enough to grab the starting 3 spot eventually?

We’re going to find out over the final 12 games of the season that’s for sure. The Raptors play:

Miami twice,
Washington
Chicago
Minnesota
New York
Detroit twice
And even an improved Philly team twice.

If this club struggles down the stretch it definitely spells trouble for any playoff success and as you can see from the forthcoming schedule, the Raptors are truly going to be put to the test. None of these games (with maybe the exception of the two Detroit contests) is un-winnable however the Raptors need to play with that same fire and "us against the world" mentality that they throttled Denver with last Friday night.

And maybe that’s the silver lining with this recent string of injuries. All season Toronto’s battled back from injuries and have bonded as a group and sometimes the best way to get peak performances is in the face of adversity.

That adversity starts tonight with the Miami Heat, a team that until it’s recent offensive troubles was one of the league’s hottest clubs. However minus Dwyane Wade, I’m still not convinced this team is that good and while they’ve got the unstoppable force known as Shaq inside, they are one of the Association’s worst offensive clubs averaging only 95.6 points per game. Part of this is due to their sub-par shooting from long-range and the denominator to their offensive woes would have to be the club’s horrendous free-throw shooting at 70 per cent, good for second last in the league. This is in spite of the fact that Miami does a solid job getting to the free throw line and obviously a good part of this poor percentage is due to Shaq’s foul shooting woes.

Additionally without Wade, Miami’s offense can get incredibly stagnant as many saw in the Heat’s back-to-back losses to Indiana and Philly last weekend where they averaged only 77.5 points. I’m hoping Sam Mitchell and co have studied those tapes in the past few days when they weren’t tending to the sick and needy and I’m expecting a good amount of zone defense tonight. If Toronto can keep Miami firing away on the outside and prevent easy looks inside to Shaq for dunks, I think the number 39 will appear in the win column tomorrow morning.

While the Heat made some great strides to get back into the playoff race, I think some of that was simply due to the emotional high of Shaq and Pat Riley’s return. This team without Wade, just isn’t that good. Factor in the average age of its key players and the loss of Jason Kapono (and perhaps Gary Payton tonight) and Toronto should be able to exploit various match-ups with their quickness advantages. Chris Bosh might be in tough against the physical Udonis Haslem but TJ Ford should be able to run circles around Jason Williams and find the likes of Mo Pete, Anthony Parker, Juan Dixon and hey, even Luke Jackson, for open looks.

The Luke Jackson era tips off tonight at 7:00 at the ACC...here’s to hoping that it’s productive enough to last more than 10 games.

FRANCHISE

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