More often than not, when we reach the late stages of a seven-game series, we have all our analysis and storylines figured out. With rotations ironed out, strengths and flaws scouted to death, and necessary adjustments made, a series between two teams usually comes down to making or missing shots.
Not so with the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors. This series, like the one the Raptors played before it, has flew in the face of predictability and continues to morph as we head into Game 7. The biggest reason behind this? Injuries to Jonas Valanciunas and Hassan Whiteside, which have changed this series permanently and fundamentally.
The Heat were the first to feel the pinch of losing their big. In Game 5, the Raptors exposed their weak interior players, as DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry finally scored in volume at the same time, scoring 59 combined points.
In Game 6, though, Erik Spoelstra benched Amar’e Stoudemire and Udonis Haslem, players the Raptors had taken advantage of on the offensive end all series. In their stead, Miami went ultra-small, playing a frontcourt of Luol Deng and Justise Winslow, with spot minutes for Josh McRoberts. The five-out lineup was able to switch everything on defense, stagnating an already gluey Raptors offense that was resolute but unable to work downhill for any stretch. Toronto squandered another quality night from DeRozan and Lowry (59 combined points, again), and now we head back to the Air Canada Centre for another Game 7.
So, how can the Raptors win and create another mind-bending parallel with their first round series against Indiana? Here’s a few things to watch for, from the lessons learned in Game 6.
Get into the primary offense quicker
This has been an issue all playoffs for the Raptors: when they walk the ball up the court and initiate their offense with 12-13 seconds on the shot clock, they set themselves up for disaster. Further, if a team can switch their initial pick and roll up top, they tend to get tentative and start passing the ball around the perimeter. This usually ends in DeRozan or Lowry being forced to find a lane to drive, which ends in inefficient shots as the shot clock buzzer rings out. Here, DeRozan bails the team out with a difficult shot over Winslow.
Miami showed in Game 6 that by switching the pick and roll, they can force the Raptors’ offense to stagnate. In Game 7, the Raptors need to offset this by screening well, then getting into their initial attack quicker. This allows time to start lovely swing-swing sequences, where the initial driver has time to kick it out and start the ball movement.
Part and parcel to this is the Raptors role players making shots, which leads into the big decision around who’s in and who’s out in Game 7.
What’s the rotation, Mr. Casey?
In Game 7 against Indiana, Dwane Casey smartly tightened his rotation, playing his biggest performers for big minute totals. Apart from five upsetting minutes from Terrence Ross, he rolled out just eight players. The shorter bench responded, as Cory Joseph, Norman Powell and Bismack Biyombo shot a combined 10-for-17 and efficiently beat up the Pacers second unit.
Against Miami, I would expect this to happen again. Casey will have tougher decisions this time, though, as his backup centre position has been pretty abysmal over the last two games. Jason Thompson hasn’t been able to provide anything on either end, while Bebe Nogeuira offsets his few positives on offense with frustrating mistakes like this one on defense, jumping on a pump fake to lead to a Miami score.
The player to watch in Game 7, I think, is Patrick Patterson. If Casey decides to go away from a backup centre completely (which he should), it will be up to Patterson to fill that role and take on more minutes. Luckily, Game 6 was a coming out party of sorts for James Johnson, who has ably guarded Dwyane Wade over a small sample size.
Dwyane Wade is 3/8 for 6-2-1 with 1 TO in 11 minutes with James Johnson on the floor. JJ 0/1 with 2 fouls, 2 rbs, 1 TO.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) May 14, 2016
If Johnson can come in and play power forward next to Patterson, giving them 10-15 good minutes without James-y mistakes on defense, then the Raptors don’t need to worry about playing Thompson or Bebe. They can tighten the rotation to eight players (sorry, Norm) and ensure there’s no major drop-off when Biyombo leaves the floor.
With their best players on the floor, it’ll then be up to the Raptors to improve on defense, where they were sorely lacking in Game 6.
Defend the point of attack
On Friday, the Heat were absolute killers on offense, playing their most efficient ball of the series. When Miami is on their game, their driving guards are getting into the paint where they score for themselves, or collapse the defense and start the ball moving.
In previous games, the Raptors bigs were able to deter the Heat from doing this hyper-efficiently. However, when the Heat went small in Game 6, they also deftly kept Biyombo away from the basket in many offensive sets, allowing the skies to part for Goran Dragic, who destroyed them for 30 points and four assists, finishing a +25.
Toronto simply needs to do a better job at the point of attack. While James Johnson can give Dwyane Wade a different look, the job for stopping Dragic falls to Cory Joseph and Kyle Lowry.
In Game 6, Joseph was aggressive to a fault, playing up high on Dragic and allowing him to blow by on possessions like this.
Lowry was better, but committed (and was called for) some silly fouls, spending most of the game playing 60-70% as aggressive as he wanted to.
The Raptors need to dare Dragic and Wade to be jump shooters. Wade especially has spent various parts of this series falling into hero ball, which is to Toronto’s benefit. You want Miami to believe they’re a good jump shooting team, which they’re not, and keep their rim attacks at bay.
Finally, it’s impossible to talk about Game 7 without at least mentioning the role that the Toronto fans will play. The Raptors have had just one day off between games dating all the way back to April 26, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see some tired bodies if the rotation tightens.
The crowd playing a role in sports is often a cliché, but in this case, it’s entirely legitimate. The Heat have figured out what they want to do on both sides, and the Raptors need to be solid for 48 minutes if they’re going to respond. I have confidence they will, and am optimistic about an Eastern Conference Finals berth.