Well, this is going to be a test, to say the least.
On Tuesday, the Toronto Raptors welcome the two-time defending NBA Champion Miami Heat to the Air Canada Centre, and while the champs may be just 2-2, they’re the champions ‘till they ain’t the champions no more.
Yes, Miami struggled with an uncharacteristic pair of losses last week, including a loss of the NBA Championship Belt to the Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve been dealing with alleged chemistry issues (described by the players as basically a failure to do the little things), but 32 assists on 37 field goals Sunday puts some of that talk to rest, I’m sure.
Unfortunately, there’s not a formula for beating the Heat, as much as we might like to think there’s a David strategy out there for toppling LeBron James and company.
Kill them on the glass? Sure, you can do that. The Raptors are the top rebounding team in the league so far (and almost certainly an above-average outfit when the stats normalize) and the Heat were below-average at rebounding on both ends of the floor last year. Those are extra possessions and certainly don’t hurt, but the Heat did just fine with a rebounding deficit last year.
Pick up the pace? Slow things down? There’s no good choice here. The Heat have played at a below-average pace in the Big Three era, but they also have the horses (namely, LeBron and deadly shooters to trail in transition) to get out and run. The Raptors want to speed things up offensively, but whether or not that strategy is efficacious against Miami is unclear, at best.
Make it rain threes? This is generally a good strategy when facing a significantly more talented team – threes are volatile, so a hot shooting night can keep things closer than they should be. The Heat have conceded threes the past two years (seventh most in 2012-13, fourth most in 2011-12), and while they held opponents to a below-average percentage last year, the opposite was true the year before. Of course, Toronto is shooting 30.2 percent and might only be a 34-35 percent true-talent team.
As you can see, there are tactical points you can try and keep in mind and gameplan for, but the Heat have won two straight titles and, including playoffs, gone 218-83. Even a perfect strategy is only going to give you a puncher’s chance.
Alas, we break it down anyway.
Point Guards: Kyle Lowry and D.J. Augustin vs. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole
Mario Chalmers has turned into quite a player over his years in Miami, providing a long-range threat while being a disruptive presence on defense. Kyle Lowry’s a better player overall and would give the Raptors the nod, but Augustin is so bad that the Heat could play Greg Oden as the backup point guard and make up the gap.
Wings: Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields and Terrence Ross vs. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis
Rashard Lewis looks like an NBA player once again, Ray Allen is the greatest shooter of all time (keeping the seat warm for Steph Curry, but still) and Shane Battier can’t stay this cold for too long. And then, of course, there’s Wade, who has worked to reinvent himself as an off-ball machine, and James, the best player in the NBA.
Gay and DeRozan could have shot charts that’d see “us nerds” make our spreadsheets sticky, and this would still be a major disadvantage. Can DeRozan keep the defensive focus up enough to chase Wade down? Can he handle Wade’s post game? Can a stronger Gay deal with James if he heads to the block?
Last year, in 105 minutes against each other, Gay actually shot 46 percent with James on the floor and managed almost a point per possession (not great, but considering the difficulty, not awful). James, meanwhile, shot 52 percent (below his 56.5 mark for the season) but had a steady stream of trips to the free throw line to make up for it.
It’s not a one-on-one or even two-on-two match-up; keeping James in check, chasing his shooters off the 3-point line and keeping tabs on Wade off the ball are all team efforts. I’m not sure it’s one this Raptors team is ready for based on the season’s early returns.
Bigs: Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and Tyler Hansbrough vs. Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem
Yes, Bosh is the best big in the game, but the advantage swings to Toronto beyond him. The real question is whether the Heat even bother with a center except for when Valanciunas is on the floor – the Heat play a lot of small-ish ball with James or Battier at the four, and that’s actually a look the Raptors are probably okay with for stretches.
Should Casey match up that way? It’s rarely an obvious choice (some hate the idea of matching to your opponent rather than making them adjust to you), but yes, in this case he probably should. Johnson is the team’s best defender, and having him on James, while exhausting and a likely plea for foul trouble, would be fine. That would also remove him as a rim protector, though, and would then require Valanciunas to cover Bosh. It seems pretty likely that Casey will go wing-heavy rather than activate a fifth (or even fourth, perhaps) big.
10 a.m. update: Chris Bosh had a baby last night (congratulations, since I’m sure you’re reading this) and is status is “undetermined” for tonight’s game. Seems likely he sits out, as he didn’t travel with the team.
Overall Advantage: Heat
Hopefully no need to spell this out any further.
Bookmakers Say: Somehow the Heat are only 5.5-point favorites. Think that sounds wrong? So do 76 percent of people right now, with heavy action on Miami (though the spread opened at six and has come down). Even with home court, keeping this a two-possession game seems like a tall task.
I’ll take the Heat and the under at 196.
You can catch the game at 7 p.m. on TSN2 and join us here for the usual live chat proceedings.