It’s been quite the weekend for basketball fans. The Raptors beat the title-favourite Lakers on ESPN, reminding Americans that the Raptors are not only in the bubble, but are actually, you know, kind of good. Elsewhere in Disney World, the Nets beat the Wizards in the league’s first ever relegation match, TJ Warren dropped 53 on the Sixers and Zion Williamson was limited to 14 minutes, disappointing everyone everywhere — folks, the NBA restart is in full swing.
To round out the long weekend, Toronto will face the Miami Heat, who are up 2-0 in the season series, in a matinée matchup on NBA TV (a humbling reminder of our roots). Both teams are 1-0 in the bubble, with the Heat’s victory coming against the banged up Denver Nuggets.
The last time these two teams played each other, a defensive melee ensued, resulting in an outrageous final score of 84-76 for the Heat. (For reference, the Mavericks and Rockets combined for the same amount of points this past Friday — at halftime). While they were without Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norm Powell for that game, the Raptors of all teams are not ones to use injuries as an excuse.
Speaking of which, following an excused absence from practice on Sunday, Jimmy Butler’s availability for Monday’s match seemed suddenly up in the air after Jae Crowder referenced Butler being in “quarantine.” The public is still somewhat in the dark on the situation, but a tweet from the NY Times’ Marc Stein suggests that the Heat All-Star will indeed suit up on Monday, meaning hopefully that Butler is free of both injury and COVID-19.
The current expectation, sources tell @NYTSports, is that Jimmy Butler will be available Monday for Miami's game against Toronto— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) August 2, 2020
Butler did not practice Sunday with the Heat, but they did not list him on their injury report tonight report in advance of the Toronto game
The Raptors and Heat have a fair bit in common. Both squads are led by strong coaches with a willingness to experiment; they’re athletic, long and impressively stingy on defense; and each team competes without a bona fide top-ten superstar (though don’t tell Kyle Lowry or Butler that). Monday’s game promises to be a thrilling, if not frantic matchup, one in which lose balls will cause bruises and technical fouls may be plentiful.
This matchup may also be a preview of what’s to come in the playoffs — and knowing these two teams, it’ll feel like the post-season has already begun.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One/NBA TV, 1:30 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Miami - Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Bam Adebayo
Toronto - Patrick McCaw (knee - out), Oshae Brissett (knee - out)
Miami - Goran Dragic (back - game-time decision), Bam Adebayo (quadriceps - game-time decision)
Game of Zones
A key factor in Miami’s aforementioned 84-76 win in January over the Raptors was their heavy use of a stifling 2-3 zone defense. With long, athletic defenders like Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Derrick Jones Jr., the Heat are well-equipped to play a zone that clogs passing lanes and forces opponents to settle for threes rather than drive to the hoop.
According to Synergy play-type tracking, the Heat have played almost twice as much zone as any team in the league. Expect to see Erik Spoelstra call for it once again on a sizeable percentage of possessions.
Meanwhile, Nick Nurse is certainly not one to back down from calling unorthodox defenses — the Raptors are known for throwing curveballs at opponents (i.e. box-and-one, triangle-and-two). It should be interesting to watch both offenses navigate around whatever is thrown at them.
Live by the Three, Die by the Three
While this phrase could be used as a slogan for 90 percent of the league at this point, it’s especially true of offenses facing a zone look. When the Heat played the 2-3 zone against Toronto, they were helped by the Raptors’ abysmal three-point shooting — they made just six of 42 attempts. If the Raptors want to force the Heat into playing traditional man-to-man, thus putting more of the load on weaker defenders like Dragic and Tyler Herro, they’ll have to knock down threes at a far more respectable rate. (I’m personally ready for Matt Thomas to drop 30, already.)
On the flip side, the Raptors have a certain passion for containing their opponents’ stars, forcing role players to step up. In Saturday’s game, the Lakers’ role players failed to capitalize on many of what LeBron referred to as “great looks,” as the team went 10-of-40 from three.
The Raptors will surely be focused on making Jimmy Butler’s life miserable, but they’ll have to close out quickly in order to stop sharpshooters like Duncan Robinson and Herro from punishing them.
Get the Bench Going
Considering it was their first meaningful game coming off of a four-month break, the Raptors looked truly great on Saturday. Lowry showed the ESPN audience why he should be named to an All-NBA Team (!!!), Gasol’s defensive presence was mighty (the Lakers had an offensive rating of 60.8 while the Spaniard was on the floor, according to The Athletic’s Eric Koreen) and Anunoby played his way onto my non-existent retroactive MVP ballot.
On the other hand, the Raptors showed some signs of rust, as expected. Most notably the team’s bench, which is generally regarded as one of the league’s best second units, managed to score just 15 points on 6-of-24 shooting. Amazing as Lowry is, he won’t be able to score 33 every night. Powell, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the bench will have to carry a larger offensive load for Toronto going forward, especially against this deep and ferocious Miami Heat team.
This matchup should be really fun to watch. Then again, almost every matchup is fun to watch now that the bottom eight teams are out of the picture. But the chippiness, athleticism and creativity between the Raptors and Heat makes for truly gripping basketball — and, again: depending on how the seeding plays out, this game may be an intense prequel to a best-of-seven.