The Toronto Raptors had a fantastic season this year, winning 56 games — good for the fourth-best record in the NBA — and finishing with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. But after a tough seven-game series with the seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers, the Raptors moved on to face the tough Miami Heat, who looked really good as they clinched their series against the Charlotte Hornets.
In the regular season, the Raptors’ All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined for 44.7 points per game and shot 42.7% and 44.6% from the field, respectively, to lead the team. But things weren’t so nice in the first round of the playoffs. They averaged 31.8 points combined against the Pacers, with both players shooting around 31% from the field.
It was tough for both the team and their star players, who struggled with the defense of Myles Turner and Monta Ellis, as well as the overall game of Paul George, who averaged 27.5 points in the loss. The good news for Toronto is that backup guard Cory Joseph shot 58.7% from the field to help the team move on — despite the fact that the Pacers outscored them in the close series.
Now the Raptors are taking on the Heat, who have some star power of their own. Dwyane Wade — despite looking like he may not have a lot left in the tank — played most of the season and is scoring efficiently in the playoffs. But the Heat are more than just Wade these days. They mix quality veterans with young kids to put together a team that they believe can make a serious run in the playoffs.
Luol Deng was fantastic against the Hornets, dropping 31 points in their blowout win in Game 1. Hassan Whiteside, who really broke out this season as a star defensive player, averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per game this season. Rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson had phenomenal seasons for Miami, showing potential for the future when Wade and the older players are long gone.
So who comes out on top in this one? If Lowry and DeRozan had problems with the Pacers’ defense, they were in for a rude awaking against the Heat. While Indiana had the eighth best defense in the NBA this season, Miami was fifth — and also one of the best at defending the three-point line. Joe Johnson can still play some defense, as can Deng, Winslow, and Wade.
Toronto needs their stars to abandon the three-pointer, at least to a degree, and focus more on high percentage shots to win this series. A big reason for the low shooting percentages against the Pacers is the fact that DeRozan and Lowry combined to shoot 10-for-61 from long distance. If they do that again, there’s a slim chance they’ll survive this series to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
For the Raptors to win this series, they need quality play from their backcourt, as well as good defense and role players who pick up the slack. Jonas Valanciunas performed well in limited time on the court against Indiana, scoring 13.6 points and grabbing 11.9 rebounds in just 26.3 minutes on the court. Not only will the Raptors require him to perform at a high level, but a few extra minutes per game wouldn’t hurt their chances, either.
Other role players who did little against the Pacers, such as Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll, need to step up as well. Both players have been somewhat of a disappointment all season in Toronto, with Patterson taking steps backward in his development and Carroll seeing his overall shooting decline from last season when he was with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Raptors need Patterson rebounding and providing hustle, Carroll shooting well from the field and providing a solid extra scoring option, and both players playing tough defense on the athletic Miami front court. As far as the records go, Toronto looks like they should be the clear favorite to win this series.
In fact, there are several things going their way — Chris Bosh is done for the year with a blood clot, and the home-court advantage belongs to the Raptors. But without Toronto’s star players returning to form and little help from the role players, they’ll be in big trouble against a Miami Heat team that’s highly motivated by a potential matchup with LeBron James in the next round.
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