It took a little while, but the Toronto Raptors finally got some momentum. Their first winning streak of the season is now at three games. More importantly, the Raptors actually put a team away convincingly in the fourth quarter, leading to garbage time minutes for the third unit during Monday’s blowout of the Dallas Mavericks. Remember the third unit?
That game was also the Raptors’ first win this season against a 2020 playoff team — yes, the Mavs were missing a few rotation players, but Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis were both on the court. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the most complete effort we’ve seen from the Raptors this season, and it came against a team with an MVP candidate and an All-Star caliber player. They’ve had moral victories and they’ve had iffy wins, but finally the Raptors gave us the best of both worlds.
Now they look ahead to the first of a two-game miniseries with Eastern Conference foe (and, uh, in-state rival?) Miami Heat. Like Dallas, the Heat have been dealing with absences due to both injury and COVID protocol, with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Goran Dragic, among others, missing time. As a result, the undermanned Heat lost three in a row (though they did take the Sixers to OT), and find themselves at 5-7, a half-game ahead of the Raptors. With a win tonight, the Raptors would leapfrog the Heat in their long climb up the standings.
But while Toronto is recovering from their poor start, Miami, too, is on the mend. Adebayo and Dragic have returned, and Herro could be joining them tonight. Don’t let the standings fool you: the Heat are as tough an opponent as the Raptors have faced this year. And both teams need a win, so this should be a good one.
Here are tonight’s details:
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 7:30 PM EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
Miami – Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo
Toronto – Patrick McCaw (knee – out)
Miami – Jimmy Butler (COVID-19 protocols – out), Avery Bradley (COVID-19 protocols – out), Meyers Leonard (shoulder – out), Tyler Herro (neck – questionable), Goran Dragic (foot – probable), Gabe Vincent (knee – probable)
A Whole Lotta Zone
During the Raptors’ two-game series with the Charlotte Hornets, we saw the team face zone defense for extended periods, really for the first time this season. The results? Not great. The Raptors looked flat, often using the whole shot clock just to end up with contested looks. In that first game, they were held to just 12 points in the fourth quarter. They won both Charlotte games, but Toronto allowed the zone to force them into settling for outside shots, attempting 50 and 49 in the two games respectively, compared to the league average of 35 attempts per game. To their credit, the Raptors made an impressive 41 percent of those threes, but they seemed to have no plan B for a shooting drought.
Facing this much zone defense could be an advantage for Toronto, though. They clearly worked on attacking the zone in practice, and when Dallas tried to copy the Hornets’ strategy, the Raptors countered with high screens, backdoor cuts, and aggressive drives by Siakam — and they only attempted 33 three-pointers.
Cue Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat, who played more zone defense in 2019-20 than the combined rest of the league did between 2016 and 2018. Instead of Bismack Biyombo or Willie Cauley-Stein in the middle of the zone, the Heat have one of the league’s top defenders in Bam Adebayo. The combination of Adebayo’s rim protection with the length and IQ of perimeter defenders like Andre Iguodala will make penetration a more difficult task than it was against the banged up Mavericks. The Raptors have reps against zone looks now, and can hopefully play more comfortably and incorporate more screen action, as well as timely cuts from the likes of Chris Boucher, and especially Siakam, who may need to use off-ball movement to get going. There should be lots of zone tonight — let’s see how the Raptors respond.
Closing Out Quarters
I’m not turning any heads when I say the Raptors have struggled to close out quarters. Fifteen point leads have shrunk to five going into halftime, double-digit leads have vanished at the end of games, and two-for-one opportunities have turned into 6-0 runs for the wrong team. The Raptors can put together really good stretches on both ends of the floor, but the effort has often not been quite as sustained as you’d hope.
Against a team like Miami, who have dangerous outside shooters and pride themselves on their high-energy playing style, the Raptors can’t take their foot off the gas in the last minute of quarters. Letting opponents sneakily chip away at deficits to end quarters has been a major factor in the Raptors’ trend of blowing double-digit leads this year. Toronto will need to limit their bad turnovers and fouls in these late-clock situations, in addition to remaining solid on defense.
Fred’s Scoring Slump
While VanVleet was his usual self on defense against Dallas, amassing four steals and helping frustrate Doncic with his active hands, he scored just six points, extending a slight offensive cold spell during which he’s averaging 12 points per game. VanVleet is converting on just 27 percent of his field goals since the game in Portland on January 11, and has only attempted five free throws in that time. His recent scoring struggles have gone under the radar as the team has won behind defense, great performances from Lowry, and improved bench play — but to have VanVleet scoring at his usual rate on top of that would be huge.
When the Raptors last played the Heat in their Bubble seeding game, VanVleet went off, scoring 36 points with an impressive 13 coming at the free throw line. VanVleet needs to play with a high level of aggression in order to replicate that kind of performance, and use the pick and roll game with Boucher and Siakam. While VanVleet’s size can at times make drives to the basket reckless, he’s also hit some nice pull-up midrange jumpers recently, and can continue to look for those. VanVleet also benefits from when the offense plays through Siakam, as opponents tend to pack the paint, often leaving Fred enough space for a catch-and-shoot three.
The Raptors look as good as they have all season. Let’s see if they can build on that against the gritty Miami Heat, and get everyone clicking at the same time.