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Raptors take on struggling Miami Heat: Preview, start time, and more

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The Raptors are 3-0 against the bottom of the Eastern Conference this week. Tonight versus the Heat, their opponent is a little tougher.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat always play the Raptors tough. You might remember them halting the Raptors’ quest for 60 wins last season. They present a lot of defensive challenges, with sturdy wings like James Johnson and shot-blocking centres like Hassan Whiteside.

This season, though, the Heat have lacked consistency, losing six of their past eight games. Key players have battled injuries and the offense has floundered (25th in offensive rating).

Their luck appears to be turning a bit as Toronto’s old foe Dwayne Wade and our old friend James Johnson play in their respective third and fourth games back from injury tonight. But the Heat aren’t in the clear yet, as the point guard situation remains a mess. Goran Dragic is out with a knee injury and the artillery behind him isn’t great. There isn’t a single backup point guard on the roster unless you count pseudo-point guard Tyler Johnson, who is out tonight as well. For now, having Josh Richardson operate as the primary ball handler seems less than ideal.

This game will still be the Raptors’ toughest test in some time. The Heat are trying to keep up in the playoff race and always play a gritty game.

Here are your details for tonight’s game.

Where to Watch:

Sportsnet One, 6:00 PM ET

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka

Miami – Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington, Rodney McGruder, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside

Injuries:

Toronto – Norman Powell (shoulder - out)

Miami – Goran Dragic (knee - out), Tyler Johnson (hamstring - out), Dion Waiters (ankle - out)

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Heat Oddities

Cool Heat stat: they are the only team in the league to average more blocks than steals (6.8 blocks to 6.7 steals). A weird stat, yes. A weird team, also yes. In the post-LeBron era they have made the playoffs twice (most recently a first round loss to the Sixers), closed out a season 30-11, and put together an 8th ranked defense or better in each of the past three seasons.

The wavering nature of the Heat makes them difficult to assess. It’s hard to know what performance they will give on a nightly basis. It’s not that they don’t try hard, they do. The more important question, rather, is whether the players can find synergy on a given night. We know the defense can be good, but with a limited roster the offense often struggles to generate enough off-the-bounce zip and shooting.

There is something a little spooky about this team. They could play .400 ball and be the 10th seed or they could win nine straight games and finish in 4th. I don’t know.

Kawhi’s Offensive Spectrum

In his first meeting with Kawhi Leonard before the season, Nick Nurse was enthusiastic about the number of ways he could use the superstar.

“He {Leonard} asked me, ‘How are you going to use me? Where are you going to get me the ball? What do you see?’ And I told him, ‘Listen. To me, you can do pretty much everything. You can post. You can drive. You can handle it up the floor. You can play screen and roll. You can come off pindowns’.”

The versatile role Nurse envisioned for Leonard hasn’t come to fruition yet. Leonard has been efficient on offense, but the entire package isn’t there. His shot spectrum involves a steady diet of post-ups and pick-and-rolls, and conversely very few catch-and-shoot looks or pindowns. Just 18.8% of his shots have come off zero dribbles. Even LeBron James, a noted basketball puppet master, takes more catch-and-shoot looks, with 24.4% of his shots coming off zero dribbles.

A few catch-and-shoot looks a game would benefit Leonard’s efficiency. When he takes more than three dribbles before a shot he shoots 38.7%. When he takes two dribbles or less he shoots 58%. The Raptors’ offense is obviously still functional (they are 4th in offensive rating), but a more varied attack from Leonard would improve the Raptors’ offensive health.

Raptors’ Starting Lineup

The starting lineup (with Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka) has played great, owning a +17.6 net rating — the best differential of any lineup in the league that has logged over 100 minutes.

Still, there is a lot to learn about that unit. As they face more elite defences, like the Heat tonight, and the Warriors next week (although not currently dominant), it will be crucial to monitor the spacing on offense. Currently, the lineup features two players, Siakam and Ibaka, who aren’t high volume catch-and-shoot guys from three.

If teams disregard those players around the three point line, Nurse could look to add another catch-and-shoot guy. The most obvious interchangeable position is power forward, where Siakam and OG Anunoby offer different skill sets. So what’s more important: the dribble-drive ability of Siakam, or the shooting of Anunoby?

As long as the Raptors keep winning and the starting lineup stays productive, Nurse won’t tinker. But as the Raptors get deeper into the season, they should consider who makes up their best five-man unit.