After some civil unrest over the last month, all appears right in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers thrashed the Celtics on Wednesday, while the Raptors came back from 20 down to beat the Pistons. Cleveland’s win all but gives them the conference’s top seed, and now the emphasis for Toronto will be to secure the third seed to avoid the Cavs for as long as possible. At the time of writing this, they’re a half-game up on Washington with the tiebreaker in hand.
Remaining schedule for 3-seed battle:— John Gaudes (@johngaudes) April 6, 2017
Toronto: MIA, at NYK, at CLE
Washington: at NYK, MIA, at DET, at MIA
For the Miami Heat, the stakes are much higher. In a three-way tie with Chicago and Indiana for the seven seed, they’re playing a dangerous game of musical chairs over the last week of the season. Win enough and they’ll get a seat in the playoffs. Lose, and they’re left out.
That hunger showed up in their game Wednesday, where the team hit a season-high 21 three-pointers and Goran Dragic scored 33 points, as they effectively ended Charlotte’s season with a 112-99 win. Miami’s been up and down since the injury to Dion Waiters, but they’ve done just enough to stay in the fight.
This is all to say: tonight’s matchup isn’t the lopsided game it appears to be. The Raptors may lead the season series 2-1, but similar to Monday’s game in Indiana, they should expect a real battle tonight at the Air Canada Centre.
Here are three things to watch for as it gets going.
Lowry’s Continued Impact
After missing 21 games, Kyle Lowry showed zero rust Wednesday in Detroit with 27 points (9-for-16), four rebounds, ten assists, and two steals. His reward is a matchup with Dragic, one that’s a few pennies shy of a real point guard rivalry. Dragic has eclipsed 20 points in the last five games, picking up the scoring load with Waiters out. Lowry’s perimeter defense will be called upon, but the Raptors as a team will have to look much more able in the pick and roll than they did Wednesday. Dragic is a big step up from Ish Smith, and Jonas Valanciunas should look to continue what he showed in the fourth quarter against Detroit (yes, he played in the fourth!): high hedging and awareness of where the big is.
Beyond Valanciunas, the entire team still has some adjusting to do with Lowry back in the mix. DeMar DeRozan looked out of place for much of Wednesday’s game, while the supporting cast looked lost. Lowry being back is tremendous, but Toronto has just three regular season games left to fit the rest of the puzzle together.
Related to that, Dwane Casey is now tasked with balancing rest and rotation. The Raptors have only had a healthy roster for two games all season, and now Casey has a full toolbox to go out and see what works.
He went ten deep against Detroit and showed a lot of mixing and matching. We got a whiff of a very playoff-looking lineup early in the second quarter with Lowry, Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, and Serge Ibaka. Keen eyes should watch this Miami game to see other experiments Casey might have.
Power Forward Consistency
Serge Ibaka hit a massive three late in the Pistons win, but he and Patrick Patterson have been a train wreck shooting the ball over the last three games. Before that one make, Ibaka had missed his previous 13 three-point attempts, and has often looked timid or uncomfortable catching the ball. Patterson is no different, and while his percentages have been up, he’s still hesitant on a lot of catches — we all know that he isn’t the best putting the ball on the floor, either.
The Raptors need more assertiveness and less hesitancy from their power forwards. Open shots are going to be there for them, and I’d rather see them commit, shoot, and miss ten attempts a game then disrupt the offense with drives. As a wise man once said: shooters shoot.
Where to Watch: TSN 2, 7:30 p.m. EST