Not to start a game preview on a selfish note, but tonight's game between the Raptors and Miami Heat will be my first in-person experience at the Air Canada Centre (you may not know this, but I'm secretly a Luddite Winnipegger). I bring this up because buying tickets involves picking an attractive matchup well ahead of time. In choosing the Heat, I was looking forward to Chris Bosh and seeing if the Heat were rounding into form as the season enters its late stages.
Well, Miami is becoming a stronger team, but it hasn't been due to their All-Star big man. After another scare with blood clots just before All-Star Weekend, Bosh has missed Miami adding a serviceable offense to their top seven defense. With the news that he might return before season's end, the Heat are my team to watch out of the Eastern Conference's soft middle.
Tonight, the Raptors will be tested by these new-look Heat, though they'll get the benefit of seeing them on a road back-to-back after playing in Chicago last night. Here's what to watch for.
Improved Heat Offense
This season, the Heat have leaned heavily on their defense to win them games. Their 100.5 defensive rating puts them sixth in the league and their 97.2 points allowed per game is the best in the Eastern Conference. The addition of Joe Johnson off waivers, though, has given them a different look on the other end. Johnson by himself hasn't been a world-beater, but coach Erik Spoelstra has made his addition part of an overall shakeup.
Amare Stoudemire has started at centre every game since the Raptors last met the Heat on January 22. In a new small-ball setting, Miami has scored over 100 points in 14 of their last 19 games and won eight of 11 games since the All-Star break.
For the Raptors, this means continuing to stay sharp on defense as a team. Miami thrives when their shooters get going (albeit a rare occurrence with the team shooting a combined 32% from deep), so controlling Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic's penetration at the point of attack will be key.
Tonight should be a good showcase for Bismack Biyombo, who along with Jonas Valanciunas, will be tasked with boxing out Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside has double-digit rebounds off the bench in 11 straight games and has brought significant energy play to the Heat. Limiting second shot opportunities will be critical.
Toronto should fare well against a surging Miami bench, if all plays out according to plan. Though Whiteside and others (Justise Winslow, Gerald Green) present challenges in their own right, Toronto's bench has handled them well in three games so far this season. It helps having one of the best benches in the conference at your disposal, it turns out.
Raptors Making Their Mark
In the midst of a home stretch against Eastern Conference playoff contenders, the Raptors need to continue to prove themselves against competition. Against a Miami team on a road back-to-back, a team they've beaten by an average of 17 points in the last two matchups, there should be ample opportunity to come out with a win and the season series. One other stat to fear should the game be close, however - Spoelstra and the Heat are 13-5 in games decided by five points or less.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7:00 p.m. EST