There is no rest for the weary in the NBA, even at the start of the new year. Fortunately for the Raptors, unlike in years past, had January 1st off in 2020. Unfortunately for them, however, is that their first opponent of the year — tonight on January 2nd — is the Miami Heat. The latter squad currently sits in third in the East, with Toronto right behind in fourth. This will be a tough game.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the Heat gained this reputation of being a pain-in-the-ass team. It happened after the departure of LeBron, surely, when their talent level dropped and their ability to grind out wins became their best (or perhaps only) skill. But shaping an entire identity around that usually takes some time. Whatever was needed in the intervening years, Miami has done it. Kudos to them, I guess, but also, yeah: pain-in-the-ass.
The Raptors, meanwhile, continue their march through the regular season despite some seriously debilitating injuries. On the nights when it works (e.g. against Boston last week), it makes Toronto the most fun story in the NBA. On nights when it’s all off (e.g. against Boston on Christmas Day), it makes Toronto seem very tired. Here’s hoping we get the former — if only to put the Heat in their place once again.
Let’s get to some game details and things to watch for.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One at 7:30pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka
Miami — Jimmy Butler, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo, Meyers Leonard
Toronto — Pascal Siakam (out - groin), Marc Gasol (out - hamstring), Norman Powell (out - shoulder), Matt Thomas (out - finger), Dewan Hernandez (out - ankle)
Miami — Justise Winslow (out - lower back)
No Rest Against the Exhausting
The thing with the Heat, the thing with the Jimmy Butler-led Heat, is that they usually refuse to go away. I hate to lard too much praise on any opposing team but I have to tip my cap to what Butler, coach Erik Spoelstra, and this entire annoying Heat squad have been able to consistently do this season. Miami make it hard to beat them. Toronto saw it earlier this season when their game stayed close and even went to overtime. That’s when Butler was able to do what he does and put his team out in front for good.
And that’s really the catch against the Heat. If the game is close, they’ve got a chance now because of Butler. So they do everything they can to wear teams out and keep themselves in it. They’ve been blown out a few times this season — the Nuggets and Sixers, for example, demolished them — but they’ve also gone 7-3 in their last ten, including three overtime victories. Underestimate the Heat at your peril!
The Raptors started Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the power forward spot on the final game of 2019. It was against the Cavaliers so they had an easy time grabbing the win regardless, but it was still something of a surprising decision. Just the game before, against OKC, RHJ barely got off the bench, appearing in just shy of three minutes and amassing only fouls for his efforts.
No, what the sudden lineup change spoke to was the struggles of OG Anunoby. At the beginning of the season, Anunoby looked like he was about to explode in a big way. His defense was approaching all-defensive team levels, his shooting was off the charts, and he was doing all the things Toronto needed him to do as a young secondary player. Unfortunately, the last month of the calendar year was particularly tough for OG. Anunoby’s defense seemed more scattered and less focused, and his shooting abandoned him, getting below 20 percent from three. The move to the bench against the Cavs kick-started him a bit though: OG put up 12-7-4 on 2-of-3 shooting from three. So maybe it was for the best? We’ll see what coach Nick Nurse has in mind tonight for his power forward spot.
Keeping Kyle and Fred Fresh
This is the song we’ll have to keep singing until at least Pascal Siakam comes back but the Raptors obviously have to figure out ways to keep Lowry and VanVleet fresh in any game — and throughout the season. Once again Lowry is on top of the leaderboard for minutes per game; Fred, mercifully, is down to seventh now. We’ve seen what happens when Toronto taxes their two guards, but we’ve also seen what happens when they don’t have them around to produce. It can get ugly.
The Raptors’ offense right now is predicated on what Lowry and VanVleet can create. Their drives open shooters, their passes create easy looks, their scoring ability draws attention away from others. Obviously other Raptors are doing their part — Serge Ibaka in the pick-and-roll, Rondae in the pocket, Terence Davis ever-confident from deep, etc. — but without Lowry and VanVleet cooking it’s tough. Against the Heat, a team built to grind up players, it will be most important to figure out ways to score that don’t totally wear out the pair in the process. If it can be done, the Raptors will have found an easier path to victory.