Blame it on the Curse of the Bull, the ghost of Chuck Swirsky, the phantom of Doug McDermott or any basketball folklore narrative you’d like, but the Raptors finally beat Chicago on Tuesday and hope to carry this momentum into Miami tonight.
It was only appropriate that the Raptors defeated the Bulls in such absurd fashion, battling back from a 15 point deficit in the fourth quarter to finally relinquish their inner Chicago demons. DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler engaged in an old-fashioned game of “anything you can do, I can do better” with DeRozan coming out on top. He led both sides with 42 points while adding seven rebounds, eight assists, and his best Lennox Lewis impression under the rim, to boot.
Now the Raptors must make a brisk shift in attention as they prepare for a date with redemption in Miami. Round one on Waiters Island did not exactly go as planned with the Raptors coming off a back-to-back against the Hawks. They got waxed by 15 points.
Luckily for the Raptors (I can’t believe I’m saying this), Dion Waiters will not be in tonight’s contest due to a sprained ankle that he suffered in Miami’s victory over Minnesota last Friday. Waiters is third in team scoring, averaging 15.8 per-game and shooting 39% from three-point land.
The Heat have lived up to their name over the past couple of months, catching fire in every way possible and climbing the NBA standings. Miami owns the fourth best record in the Association since New Years at a mark of 25-12, selling their basement real estate next to Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference and soaring up and into the playoff picture. Erik Spoelstra seems like a lock for the coach of the year shortlist if they can get into the post-season. He’s turned a roster strung from NBA silly-putty, into a dangerous team that could make some noise this spring.
The Raptors have won three in a row and look to make it four for the first time since late February.
For the rematch, however, the Raps will be without Serge Ibaka, suspended one game for his altercation with Robin Lopez. They’ll have a healthy(ish) DeMarre Carroll, though — he was absent in the last meeting can help bolster the Raptors game at both ends of the floor.
Here are a few key things to watch and consider:
Paper Trail — Check your Schedules
I know there has been a vast amount of schedule chatter in the past couple of weeks, but hey, now is when it matters most. When it comes to the Raptors, the three-seed is essential in avoiding LeBron in round two. The Raptors have no remaining games against teams above .500, except for Indiana (36-34) and Cleveland, which comes on the final day of the season and could be a LeBron-less affair. The third-seeded Wizards however play Atlanta tonight, Brooklyn on Friday and then depart on a gruelling five-game road trip that reads: At Cleveland, LA Lakers, LA Clippers, Utah and Golden State for the finale. This stretch of games for each team will be imperative as to who finishes in which seed.
As for Miami, it almost doesn’t seem to matter who is at the other end of the hardwood, as they have defeated just about every team this season. It will be a tall task however when one considers that six of the Heat’s final eleven games come against the four top seeds in the East: Toronto (twice), Washington (twice), Boston and Cleveland. After tonight, the Heat have just four home games remaining and will have to steal a few wins on the road where they have struggled, sporting a record of 14-21.
244 Pounds of James Johnson
The eye test never really told me that double-J ever needed to lose weight — but maybe he just looked better in a Raptors uniform. Regardless, if you haven’t heard by now, Johnson dropped 30 pounds for the Heat this off-season and it has paid off handsomely for the 30-year-old veteran.
With Waiters out tonight, expect the Heat to lean on Johnson a great deal at both ends of the floor. His career season has played a significant role in Miami’s renaissance campaign and he will surely be licking his chops going up against his former court-mates. Johnson has averaged 13.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4 assists, while shooting 51% from the field and a guard-worthy 36.7% from three.
Life Without Ibaka
The Raptors and Heat have each been among the top of the league defensively since the All-Star break, ranking seventh and fifth respectively in points allowed per 100 possessions. For Miami, Hassan Whiteside leads the league in both total (14.2) and defensive (10.5) rebounds per-game and repels opponents from the paint with his freakish combo of length and athleticism.
Since acquiring P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have finally been able to round out their game and bring it defensively every night. In the four Raptor victories previous to the Bulls game on Tuesday, they held their opponents to point totals of 91 (Indiana), 75 (Detroit), 78 (Dallas), and 87 (New Orleans). In the 164 minutes that Tucker and Ibaka have co-existed on the floor, the Raptors have a net rating of +14.9 points per 100 possession. Life without Ibaka will be a challenge for the Raptors, especially on the road against a desperate Miami team.
Where to Watch: SportsnetOne, 7:30 pm, ET