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

After a very impressive win over the LA Lakers in their last game, the Toronto Raptors look continue their winning ways at home as they face one of their key competitors in the playoff hunt tonight - the Miami Heat.  The HQ breaks down tonight's match...

Before I got dove into my chat with Jerry Stackhouse yesterday, I started the piece by discussing Toronto's utterly "feastable" schedule over the next 10 games.

With matches against the likes of the Nets, Pacers, 76ers, Wizards, Knicks and Kings, and the majority of these at home, it would seem that if the Raps want to make a run up the Eastern Conference standings, or at the very least, solidify a playoff spot, now would be the time to do it.

In fact, how does 8 and 2 sound?

That's the record I'm looking for this team to hit over the next 10, the two toughest matches on paper being tonight against the Miami Heat, and unbelievably, against a red-hot Grizzlies team who comes to town on Feb 17th.

Throw in a trap game like tomorrow night against the Knicks on a back-to-back, or against the Washington Wizards Feb 20th on another back-to-back, and really, anything less than a 7 and 3 record over the next 10 would be a disappointment in my books.  Based on strength of schedule, the Dinos have played the second toughest schedule in the league (when you look at the winning percentage of the opponents they've had to face), and now with the deck seemingly cleared to a certain extent, the club should be primed for take-off.

The team is healthy (although apparently DeMar DeRozan tweaked his ankle yesterday in practice), the chemistry looks better than it's been all season, the rotations seem to have sorted themselves out, and Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani are playing at very high levels.  With the exception of our buddy Hedo, and hey, maybe those key free-throws have even fixed his game!, there really shouldn't be any excuses for a middling record going into and out of the All-Star break.

However as we've seen this season, consistency has been a major issue and for Toronto to really make believers of us all, it continues tonight with a win against the Miami Heat.

As usual, here are our keys:

1)  Home Sweet Home.

The Heat are coming off a tough, last-minute loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers that undoubtedly left a very bad taste in their mouths.  They're currently also only a half game up on the Raptors for fifth in the East, so I fully expect Miami to come into the ACC tonight focussed, and ready for victory.  Remember, the teams have split the season series so far, so a win tonight could go a long way in determining which of them gets the higher playoff seeding should their records end in a tie come season's end.

However I don't expect the Raps to roll over and play dead here, especially in the friendly confines of the Air Canada Center.  Toronto has won nine of its last 10 at home, and has the East's fifth-best home record.  They've showed confidence and poise at home, and seem to be realizing the importance of defending home-base.

Therefore tonight I'll be looking for the Dinos to continue their home winning-ways this evening, drawing on the ACC faithful for support.


2)  Beasley vs. Bargnani - The X Factors.

While Bosh and Wade are the alpha dogs on display tomorrow night, I truly think that it will be Andrea Bargnani and Michael Beasley who decide this one's outcome.  Both can be absolutely dominant at times, especially on offense, and yet both can disappear as well, forcing their alpha dog compatriots to carry more of the scoring load than usual.  I truly believe that whichever of these two has the superior game, their team will triumph as well.

Of the two, I believe that it's Bargs that has the clear advantage simply because he'll be guarded by the less mobile Jermaine O'Neal.  He should be able to take JO off the dribble, and be able to draw the former Pacer All-Star out towards the 3-point line, allowing his teammates more room to operate in close. And considering Andrea's individual defense on centers of late (Andrew Bogut aside), I'm not exactly concerned with JO taking Bargs to school at the other end of the court either.

Beasley likely will be guarded by Bosh to start and CB4 will need to put a body on him.  Like Andrea, Beasley tends to drift at times in terms of rebounding, but if Toronto lets him get on the glass early, it could spell major trouble all night.


3)  Nothing Easy.

Remember on Sunday night when Chris Bosh sent Kobe Bryant to the floor on a Kobe foray to the hoop?  Nothing malicious, but that's the type of play we need to see more of from the Raps as the season goes on.

This goes double for tonight's crucial game.

Besides expecting the Raptors to bring forth the requisite energy in a key match-up, I also want to see that competitve grit come forth, especially in terms of preventing easy Miami buckets.  The Heat are not a great offensive team, they're middle of the pack in terms of offensive efficiency and average the 7th least amount of points per game in the league, so easy run-outs for dunks and lost coverages around the rim just can't happen tonight.  As well, considering that Miami is one of the worst 3-point shooting clubs in the association, it would be criminal to give streaky shooters like Rafer Alston and Mario Chalmers open looks.

If I'm Jay Triano, I make Wade score 60 but prevent the rest of his teammates from getting anything easy.  When Toronto lost to Miami earlier this year, Wade had only 19, but Beasley, O'Neal, Carlos Arroyo and Dorrell Wright all had double digit scoring performances and various other Heat bench players came close to that mark.

On the flip side, in Toronto's win over Miami, Wade dropped 30 on the Raps as did Mario Chalmers, but the Heat's bench contribution was almost nil and the Raps did a nice job of forcing Wade to overcompensate for his lack of offensive assistance; it took him 24 shots to get those 30 points.

I'll be looking for a similar scenario tonight, this time, one that doesn't mean having Hedo Turkoglu looking for a bailout call with 1.2 seconds left in the game...


As usual, we'll be live-blogging all the action as it goes down so drop on by the HQ to add your two cents on what should be a good match.