The Toronto Raptors are back in unison, buoyed by the relentless defense that pushed them to the top of the standings the last three seasons.
Last night’s 109-102 defeat at the hands of Easter conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers put Toronto back at 16-16 for the season, but the spirit and pride of the team was night and day from their earlier season losses. If you’ll recall, it was an early season loss against the Sixers in which Pascal Siakam fouled out and uncharacteristically walked back to the locker room with time still to play.
Last night’s finish was completely the opposite; despite the loss, the fight shown by the Raptors have them looking like the Raptors of old.
the raptors made the sixers play overtime without an overtime— William Lou (@william_lou) February 24, 2021
Toronto wasn’t the only team to stumble out the gate. The Miami Heat, decimated by health and safety protocols and injuries all season long, are only just starting to find their groove. A lot of the recent improvement can be pinned on the return of Jimmy Butler, who’s only played in 19 of the team’s 31 games; Miami is just 3-9 (including a win against the Raptors) without Butler in the lineup compared to 11-8 with him.
The Heat, along with the Los Angeles Lakers, also had the quickest turnaround in league history from one season to the next. Early season fatigue was surely a factor in the slow start.
Heat are:— Miami Heat Beat (@miaheatbeat) February 23, 2021
11-8 with Jimmy Butler
3-9 without him
Dragic has played two games with Jimmy since his return. This team is improving and getting healthy
With both the Raptors and Heat finding their groove, this game could be an important factor in late season seeding. The teams split two in Tampa earlier this season, and winning tonight could give Toronto the edge if they finish with the same record. On the second night of a back-to-back, this contest will surely test Toronto’s heart and resolve.
Here are the details for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch:
TSN, 8:00 PM EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, DeAndre Bembry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
Miami – Jimmy Butler, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo
Toronto – Kyle Lowry (thumb – questionable)
Miami – Tyler Herro (hip – questionable), Goran Dragic (ankle – questionable), Chris Silva (hip – questionable), Avery Bradley (calf – OUT), Meyers Leonard (shoulder – OUT)
Starting Small, Ending Big
Four of the past five games saw Coach Nick Nurse start small, with both Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher on the bench. Toronto’s small lineup showed it could compete with it’s switchability and versatility, particularly the effort to close out shooters after sending double teams to both Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The small lineup has shown its ability to compete, but what about the bigger ones?
We saw Toronto trot out the VanVleet, Anunoby/Powell, Siakam, Boucher, and Baynes lineup more than once against the size of Philadelphia, to some good effect. Chris Boucher has been benefiting the most by playing big. Not having to be the lone big has allowed him to contest more shots without worrying about an offensive rebound thanks to Aron Baynes’ big body. Offensively, he can out-work smaller players around the rim to create extra opportunities.
Siakam’s playmaking has allowed this lineup work on the offensive end as well, allowing VanVleet or Powell to run off screens and pin downs. Let’s see if we see more of it tonight against the quickness of Miami.
Whatever you ask of Jimmy Butler, he will bring it. If you want him to score, he’ll score. If you want him to get his team involved, he’ll make sure the team runs smoothly. If you want him to take the opposing teams’ best player, he’ll lock him down. Miami and Butler have been a hand-in-glove fit ever since he signed with them last season. We all know how well they played last season, upsetting both the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics en route to their first finals berth since 2014.
Heat since Jimmy Butler has returned:— Giancarlo Navas (@gnavas103) February 21, 2021
2nd in DRtg
12th in Reb%
9th in Opponent 3P%
2nd in Contested 3PA
8th in Opponent FGA at the rim
Their offense is still poop, but their defense feels like it's creeping to legitimacy. These are good trends
Butler has been stuffing the stat sheet since his return from illness. In 12 games in February, he’s averaging 19.8 points along with 8.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Butler has posted a triple double in four of his last seven outings. He missed the first two contests against the Raptors this season and when you mix a recent All-Star snub with his status as a Raptor Killer, he’s sure to have a chip on his shoulder tonight.
Let me preface this by saying I don’t believe there should be an All-Star event this year. But with the All-Star festivities still going ahead, there is still time to debate the selections. This year will be the first season since 2013 in which a Toronto Raptors player will not participate in the game. After starting the season 2-8 with a few high-profile lowlights, Pascal Siakam, who was an All-Star starter and All-NBA last year, was not selected as a reserve at the 2021 All-Star game.
It’s strange seeing NBA fans – spearheaded by majority of Raptor fans – turn so quickly on Siakam. Toronto’s All-Star promotions on Twitter saw a significantly less engagement on Siakam’s posts, compared to his counterparts Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Poor showings from Siakam get magnified but strong ones are often ignored (think about that Drake Lyric: “They scream out my failures and whisper my accomplishments”). His numbers have taken a slight dip, coinciding with increased production and opportunities from OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, but his impact on the game is just as strong.
Admittedly, Siakam not being selected didn’t come as a surprise. Just like Trae Young, the public tide has turned on him. I’d have loved to see Domantas Sabonis get selected as well as Fred VanVleet, but the thing about All-Star selections, it’s a popularity contest. And sometimes there just isn’t enough room for everyone worthy.