Even before they had the chance to leave the arena on Sunday, the Toronto Raptors were preparing for what's next. Right after leaving a rowdy Air Canada Centre floor, awash with elation and relief, each player had a binder waiting for them at their locker. On the cover: "Eastern Conference Round 2: Toronto vs. Miami".
The preparation started immediately for the Raptors, because it had to. Game 1 is tomorrow night and Miami presents a very different challenge to the one the Pacers put up. You can argue that the Raptors' star players match up better with the Heat -- there's no Paul George to body up DeMar DeRozan on this roster -- but the matchups go far deeper than that. From one through nine on the depth chart, this is a juicy series, with all the makings of a prolonged clash.
Here are some things to watch for early in the series, as the Raptors look to hold home court tomorrow and Thursday.
The battle down low
So rarely in today's NBA does the most intriguing battle on the floor come from the two centres, but that's what we'll see in this series. Hassan Whiteside has continued to take fundamental steps in his improvement, and whoever wins his power matchup with Jonas Valanciunas will speak volumes about who will win this series.
Starting on Miami's offensive end, a team effort will be needed to take Whiteside out of his comfort zone. Whiteside still doesn't have a great one-on-one game in the post, but his freakish athleticism makes him a frightening roll guy and offensive rebounder. He shot a blistering 69.8% in the first round, mostly because of plays like the first one shown below, where you can almost see him sneer at the help defender as Charlotte switches the pick and roll, giving him an easy layup. In the second clip, he gets great rebounding position and gobbles up the ball for a putback dunk. The young man is a problem.
The Raptors need to be patient when ICEing the pick and roll against Miami, because baiting their shooters into mid-range shots is preferable to dunks at the rim. Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo will need to be positionally solid, while showing the ability to recover and grab rebounds. Ideally it's Jonas who shows promise, because he could have a great series at the other end.
On offense, Valanciunas can take pages from both Al Jefferson's book and from his own success earlier in the season. In the first round, Jefferson was able to expose Whiteside's weakness as a one-on-one defender. While Valanciunas may not get his points in as polished a fashion as Big Al, he can both score on post-ups and get cleanup points effectively against Whiteside.
In the March game between these two teams, Jonas had 20 points and 10 rebounds, mostly getting buckets on dumpoffs with Whiteside helping assertively on drives like these.
Miami's rotation guy to box out Valanciunas in these scenarios will rarely be bigger than a Joe Johnson or Luol Deng, so yeah, the big man should feast. Like it was early in the Pacers series, Valanciunas just needs to be solid with his hands on putback attempts and score when the opportunity is provided. The Raptors guards also need to drive effectively, which is an excellent segue to discussing the All-Stars.
Lowry and DeRozan as creators
As mentioned off the top, both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have full reason to breathe a sigh of relief after beating Indiana. With George Hill and Paul George now in the rear view mirror, neither player should see the same level of deterrent for their drives to the rim.
DeRozan, who has two healthy elbows, will have the limelight -- as he'll likely have Wade guarding him in the starting unit and a rookie in Justise Winslow providing some size off the bench. With these guys on him, it's no wonder he averaged 29.8 points on 49% shooting against the Heat this season.
More importantly for the playoffs, his assist rate was higher in four games against Miami (23.4%) than his season average (20.8%). As the game slows down and the Miami defense collapses on DeRozan with double teams, it'll be about making dumpoff passes to Valanciunas like the one shown below, or kicking the ball out to the corner shooter. DeMar needs to be a willing passer, something he often was not in the first round, where his assist rate cratered to 14.5%.
As for Lowry, we can't expect that his shot will get any better as time passes. He was just 10-for-50 from outside 20 feet in the first round, and the bricks he put up in Game 7 indicate that the elbow is getting worse, not better. Without any significant period of rest, it'll be paramount that Lowry continues to make hustle plays and avoid turnovers. He also needs to get to the rim where, at the very least, he's shown the ability to make layups and cause havoc around rebounders.
Containing the dribble of Wade and Dragic
At 34 years old, Dwyane Wade showed no signs of his age during the first round series against Charlotte. While maintaining his season average of 19 points per game, his rebounds and assists both went up. More importantly, he was around to make the big shots in a critical Game 6, throwing that classic Wade snarl at purple shirt green backpack guy.
The Heat offense, and especially their outside shooting, is predicated on defenses loading up on Wade's drives to the basket. For the Raptors, DeMarre Carroll and Norman Powell will (hopefully) both be tasked with keeping Wade out of the lane, where he usually makes great decisions and begins the movement that's so key to Miami's success.
If Wade is bottled up, the focus will then be on ensuring Goran Dragic doesn't repeat his Game 7 efforts. A 25-point performance showed how good the point guard can be when he's driving effectively. Here, the pressure moves to Lowry and Cory Joseph to shadow Dragic and force him into jump shots and away from plays like this in transition.
WHAT. A. SEQUENCE.— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 1, 2016
Defense ➡️ offense pic.twitter.com/bRpSkkdmNC
Will Miami stay hot from deep?
During the season, the Heat were the fifth-worst team in the NBA shooting the three at 33.6%. Now? They're up to a third-best 40.6%, with even the Warriors looking up at them. What or who has been behind this shift?
First, the Heat have been a different team since the Joe Johnson acquisition and Chris Bosh injury. They're playing less traditional and more forward-thinking offensive basketball, with Whiteside in the middle and a four-out lineup around him. While Johnson has been a good shooter his entire career (he was 43.5% on threes in the first round), the surprise has been Luol Deng, who has gone supernova with his three-point shot. In the regular season, he was making them at a 34.4% clip -- against Charlotte, that exploded to 51.3%.
The question we have to ask is, how sustainable is this? The Raptors are not a good team at defending the three-point shot, but the Heat have yet to regress to their mean in this department. It'll take a bit of both if the Raptors want to go far in this series. When you have to protect the line, guard against Wade's drives, and keep Whiteside in mind, something has to give eventually.
Beyond these big areas, there's some other smaller storylines I'm interested to see play out:
Casey's rotation. The big question: will Luis Scola find his way into this series? With Josh McRoberts playing minutes, there may be opportunity to get Scola in and loosen the rotation again. Also, the Terrence Ross question mark continues to hang over the team. With the continued emergence of Norman Powell, Ross continues to fade further into oblivion. He played some bad basketball in the first round, and I'm curious to see how long his leash is in this series.
The health of Josh Richardson. Richardson, a 22-year-old rookie, has been a strong rotation wing for the Heat down the stretch of the season, but a shoulder strain rendered him an ineffective 1-for-6 in 20 minutes in Game 7. This amped up the role of Gerald Green (who's always a wild card), but it'll be interesting to see how this injury changes Miami's look early in the series.
Home court. After a long, physical series against the Pacers, these first two games in Toronto will be key for the Raptors. They'll need to dig in, then settle in against a veteran Miami team that's solid in what they want to do. The Raptors need to play like a team that, in the words of DeMar DeRozan, have the "monkeys off their back".
Ultimately, this is the series you wanted when projecting the Raptors' playoff run after a 56-win season. We wanted to see this team get tested against a quality opponent, a veteran team with playoff experience. The fact that we get that series, and that the Raptors hold assets that can win them the series, is an excellent sign.
I've got the Raptors winning in seven -- home court isn't for nothing as we learned Sunday night -- but really, I'm just as excited for the road as I am for the result. Strap in and enjoy it, if it's everything it should be on paper, we're in for a hell of a ride.