Of all the middling basketball teams you don’t want to see after stuffing yourself with Christmas ham (or turkey or goose, if you’re partial), the Miami Heat may top the list.
Miami, with a 16-16 record, host the Raptors tonight in the second matchup of four between these two; Toronto won the first in late November, 125-115. Miami and Toronto, though, have a long history of close games, especially when the Heat play to their brand — scrappy players turn basketball into a contact sport, make life difficult, and annoy you into submission.
If this is Peak Miami, then they’ve been playing the role lately. The Heat have won five in a row, holding all five opponents under 100 points and below their shooting average during the streak. They’re also winning the rebound battle by an average of 12.4 in victories over Orlando, Milwaukee, Houston, New Orleans, and Memphis. This, partially without Goran Dragic, who left the team to have surgery on his knee on December 19.
For the Raptors side, they come in healthier and happier after a decent break. Three full days have separated them from their weekend loss to Philadelphia, the falling-off point after a really tough schedule that brought a bunch of short-term injuries. For this game, only Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are on the injury report, with Ibaka questionable with a swollen knee. There’s also been the news that Kawhi Leonard will probably play back-to-backs starting in the new year. At long last!
We’ll get into the details, but Toronto will have to shake off any Christmas rust early on — the Heat are always energetic — if they do, the combination of Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard shouldn’t have too many problems picking apart a star-less Heat squad.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 7:30 PM EST
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Miami - Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Rodney McGruder, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside
Toronto - Jonas Valanciunas (out - thumb dislocation), Serge Ibaka (questionable - swollen knee)
Miami - Goran Dragic (out - knee), Dion Waiters (doubtful - ankle)
Finding The Difference
As I alluded to above, so many of these matchups against the Heat can frustrate a great team like the Raptors. Miami is well-coached by Erik Spoelstra and rarely let games get outside of striking distance. For the Raptors, it’s about finding a performance that’ll push them over the top.
The last time these two teams played, that came down to Kawhi. The superstar had 29 points, ten rebounds, and two blocks, also getting a strong supporting performance from Pascal Siakam, who had 21.
Leonard will likely spend most of his time being guarded by Justise Winslow, who’s an aggressive on-ball personality, but isn’t always at full speed and has some trouble with team schemes. If the Raptors are smart, they’ll set a ton of screens for Leonard early on, let him get in a groove, and hope a similar story plays out on Boxing Day as it did in November.
Crashing The Glass
For all the ways you can ridicule Hassan Whiteside, his ability to snag boards isn’t one of them. Whiteside has five 20-rebound games already this season and is averaging 13.2 per game. His backup in Bam Adebayo has also been good too, grabbing 12.2 boards per 36 minutes (he’s also been a thorn in the Raptors’ side when it comes to the glass). In fact, the Heat as a team are third in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage at 30.7, as only Denver and Oklahoma City are better.
Without Jonas Valanciunas, the onus is on the Raptors guards to get in and help out. Typically, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green have been good at this, but it’ll take a strong effort across the board to help out a frontcourt hurt by injuries. Greg Monroe can’t be on an island, otherwise the Heat will have more possessions and an opportunity to balance the talent gap.
Let the Bench Roll
While the Raptors lack of depth due to injuries hurt them against Philadelphia, having Kawhi back should help the bench continue to gain momentum.
Norman Powell, still getting his bearings after coming back from injury, had a season-high 13 on Saturday — it would be great to see him perform again as the team searches for the last consistent player in their rotation.