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3 In The Key - Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Miami

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Home sweet home. 

After a couple of trips out West the Raps are now in for a stretch of home games with their next three games taking place at the ACC.

First up? The Miami Heat.

Well no more late starts for the Raptors the next little while. For now we can all get back to our usual routines which involve 7 pm start times (except on Sundays).

It's a good thing too because after the past few games you had to ask yourself whether it was worthwhile staying up to watch such disappointing performances.

It's true that the performances lately, in particular on the defensive end, have been disappointing, but the results are not unexpected. Even before the season kicked off everyone seemed to agree that this team would struggle out of the gates due to the number of new faces and the tough schedule.

Well now the schedule gets really interesting as nine of the next  ten games are against Eastern Conference foes. Now is the time when we will really get a true sense of whether this team is a contender or a pretender. If this team can't secure a W against teams like Indiana, Miami and Washington what hopes do they have of securing a top 6 spot in the East? Probably very little.

Right now, albeit early in the year, it looks like almost every team in the East, with the exception of Charlotte, New York and lowly New Jersey, will be fighting for a playoff spot. That's 13 teams vying for only 8 positions. To the surprise of many teams like Indiana and Milwaukee are actually playing respectable basketball and can't, at this moment, be considered a lock for the lottery. 

I completely agree that being in contention now means very little. There are still 70 games or so to play. Yet the results to date indicate that it's going to be a dog-fight, with a lot of dogs, to make the second season. If this trend continues making the playoffs won't simply depend on the number of wins and losses but also who those wins and losses are against. Beating teams in the Eastern Conference isn't just a nice to have, but a must have. Tie-breakers could mean a great deal.

Well now is the time for the Raps to start gathering those wins.

Enter the Miami Heat.

The Heat, after a blistering start to the season, are slowly coming back to reality having lost 3 of their last 4 games. Little fault for the losses can be placed on Dwyane Wade as he continues to play at an All-World level. The Heat are simply having the same problems they have had since O'Neal left town - they are essentially  playing 1 on 5 on any given night. This is an overstatement for sure, but without Wade this team would be fighting it out with New Jersey for the first pick in the 2010 draft.

This team so badly needs help for Wade that they are looking at securing the services of Allen Iverson. I don't understand, nor will I try to understand why Pat Riley would consider this.

Even with little in terms of a supporting cast if you are a Raps fan you have to be just a little concerned about what sort of damage Wade could inflict tonight given the woes on the defensive side of the ball.

As pointed out yesterday, the Raps are not far off from being one of the worst defensive teams in history. Just think about that for a second. History?! Even if the Raps could be a middle of the road defensive team the results could be scary good. Until then it's going to really frustrating. The team has the offensive firepower and if you believe, like I do, that defense is to a great degree a pride thing, then if the Raps don't pick it up they are squandering a great opportunity.  

Given the porous defense what are the odds that the Raps can contain Wade? Obviously containing Wade is priority one on the defensive end but if the Raps double and triple team him how unsettling is it going to be to see Jermaine O'Neal make uncontested shots and dunk the ball repeatedly? 

It's not going to be an easy match-up for the Raps but it's a game that they can win and when the season is winding down one we may look back on as one they needed to win.

To get home on the Miami side of things we reached out to David at Peninsula is Mightier for our latest Blogging With the Enemy segment:

HQ: Miami has been one of the surprises so far this year in the NBA, racing out to a 7 and 3 start.  Many folks had the Heat pegged for a lower seed come playoff time, fighting to perhaps even make it depending on injuries.  If this club stays healthy, just how good to you think they can be?  And besides Wade, who's been the biggest reason for this good start - a healthy Jermaine O'Neal?

David: Several things have attributed to the Heat getting off to such a good start.  Quentin Richardson has been a huge acquisition for Miami.  He dropped 20lbs in the off-season and has been playing some amazing defense which has won over the Heat coaching staff.   He's also shooting over 40% from 3-point range.  Jermaine O'Neal's great start to the season have been huge as well because without that presence down low there would be a lot more pressure on your maturing youngsters, especially Michael Beasley.

HQ:  An obvious question would be to ask about your thoughts on Bosh and Wade, and what your gut feeling is about CB4 joining Wade in South Beach next year.  Give your quick take on that if you'd like but talk a bit about Michael Beasley, a player who keeps coming up in "Bosh to Miami" trade scenarios.  How good can this kid be long-term, Carmelo Anthony good?

David: Of course any Heat fan would be crazy not to love the idea of Chris Bosh playing for the Heat. It's been something that many of us down here have thought about many many times because its no secret that Pat Riley has wanted to get Bosh for quite some time.  The main player discussed in a Bosh trade has been Michael Beasley, so here is a little Beasley info.  First off, don't put any worry into his recent 'off the court problems'.  This is a young man that is completely dedicated to being a dominant player in the NBA and has developed an amazing work ethic in order to keep himself focused and always doing the right thing.  One concern I have is that Beasley isnt the brightest crayon in the box, so he needs to have the right kind of people around him, which he absolutely does down here in Miami.  

HQ:  Keys to tonight's game; what do the Heat need to do to get the win?

David: To get a win tonight the Heat need to just get back to basics.  In the past week they have done a terrible job of shooting the ball from all parts of the court.  42% from the field, 31% from 3 and just 69% from the foul line.  If they can get Jermaine O'Neal involved early and work their game from the inside out, it will allow guys like Chalmers and Wade to move around more freely and run the offense the way they like.  They also will need to avoid turning the ball over; they've coughed it up 29 times in the last two games.  

Thanks to David for these answers!

Here's tonight's three keys for the Raptors:

1. PG Play - This is the one area where the Raps have a distinct advantage. Calderon has rebounded nicely from a very slow start and is starting to look very confident on the offensive end. Defensively he leaves much to be desired but I like this match-up against Mario Chalmers. Chalmers is still coming into his own, and despite shooting solid percentages from all over the floor he is not asked to do much on the offensive end. With Wade neither he nor Carlos Arroyo handle the rock as much as a traditional point. Calderon and Jack need to be attacking the Miami PG's all night long. If Calderon can dominate this match-up it will go a long way to securing the W. 

2. Bench Play - The other distinct advantage for the Raps? The bench. Miami's roster is fairly shallow and their best bench player is arguably Daequan Cook. The Raps really need to put the pedal to the metal late in those minutes late in the first and third quarters and early in the second and fourth. I will be watching closely to see if the Raps can sway the game in their favor during those times. There is no good reason why the Raps can't take advantage of the likes of Cok, Shavlik Randolph and James Jones.

3. Consistent Effort - Of course the easiest way to secure a win is with steady effort on both ends of the court. It means not falling behind by 20 early and not running out of gas late. It requires a consistent effort throughout the game. This is not something we have seen from the Raps this year. The one consistent part of Raptors games is that they lose when the opponent scores more than 100 points. Consistent defensive effort will be required to prevent this from happening again.

It is time for the Raps to start turning the corner and this stint at home should hopefully do the trick.