It’s been quite a while since I’ve looked forward to a Raptors/Heat game for reasons other than watching LeBron do his thing. The Raptors are in the middle of a transition from perpetually disappointing to … I’m not sure how good this team is, but all this team-first, share-the-rock, make-the-right-basketball-plays winning has softened the jaded self-loathing that years of watching them play have saddled my heart with.

It’s important not to look at every upcoming game for the Raptors as a must-win, heat-check (sorry), critical game because they aren’t. Unless Ujiri trades for Carmelo, this team wont regress to the ball-stopping, iso/hero-ball they played for the last little while. Sure they wont win 75% of their remaining games, but they will probably win more than they lose, and part of Leweike’s and Ujiri’s rebuilding of this team was to deal with a bunch of fans suffering from an abusive relationship.

Sorry for the rant, but the Bargnani era has really weighed heavily on us, and it’s been nice to watch, follow, talk about a team that we love without finishing each sentence with a “f*ck,” “crap,” or a deep sigh that leaves you on the verge of tears.

The Raptors continue their road trip in Miami against a Heat team that is on the second night of a back-to-back (they unsurprisingly thumped the Magic 110-94).

Surya Fernandez @suryaheatnba from Hot Hot Hoops was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Heat:

Things seem a bit tougher for the Heat this season: Wade’s 47 year old body is breaking down; the Pacers putting pressure for home court advantage in ECF; general apathy after being the best for two straight years. Will this team three-peat?
Hard to tell but their only real test in the East is the Pacers and they’ve handled them before in the postseason so it looks like a relatively easier path to the Finals than other seasons where the Bulls and the Celtics were also legitimate contenders. The Heat have won it all with homecourt advantage in the East and they’ve won it all without it and with the Bulls finishing first in the East. Besides, we all know a series can totally change with one road victory. I expect it to be a hard-fought series this time around but if the Pacers can have Game 7 in Indiana, that would be huge. The Heat may not have all the answers for Roy Hibbert, but let’s not forget that no team really has an answer for LeBron. Especially if he has Bosh and a (hopefully healthy by the postseason) Wade backing him up. A deep and talented bench filled with savvy vets helps matters too.

Do you get the feeling that LeBron will retire with the Heat, or will he opt out and head back to to the Cavs? What’s the plan if he leaves; build around Bosh and a broken down Wade?
I haven’t really seriously considered LeBron leaving Miami, at least not so soon, and I’m sure Heat Nation hasn’t either. It just feels like he’s just getting started and they’ve only lost one playoff series the entire time he’s been down here so I would say his arrival has been a total success. He’s had everything he’s dreamed of; the championship rings as well as the personal accolades. With a rock-solid front office and a mentor in Pat Riley, I honestly can’t think of a better destination elsewhere. Does he really want to join the turmoil in New York, Los Angeles or in Cleveland? It would be more realistic for him to retire in Cleveland at the end of his career but who knows how long that will be? A decade from now or even more?

I know you guys were looking for a playmaker/scorer off the bench (errr…Lowry?); maybe a big to backup Bosh (Bynum if he gets released??). What kind of moves can we expect from this team with respect to trades?
I don’t see any trades happening unless a team is salivating over Joel Anthony’s potential because there’s not much left that the Heat would be willing to part with. Since Miami is such a popular destination, the Heat could possibly upgrade their roster with a veteran that has been let go by their team (like a Bynum-type of scenario). That’s how the Heat wound up with Mike Bibby in the first season of the Big 3 era for example, but I think they’ll want to do better this season than that. They’re still last in the league in rebounding and still undersized while Greg Oden continues his rehab so perhaps that’s why they would be interested in Bynum. Regardless, they’ll be sure to have at least a few options by the trade deadline if they want to pursue a trade or pick up a player that has been waived.

What’s changed in Beasely in his 2nd go with the Heat? Dude is putting up 20/9 per 36 minutes, and doesn’t look as high as he used to.
Beasley is not surrounded by knuckleheads and has been placed in a nurturing environment with familiar faces as well as veterans who know how to win and act like a professional off the court. Playing on a non-guaranteed contract and having something to prove but without the pressure of having to anchor the offense on a nightly basis has really worked wonders for him. If he has a bad game, no one is really going to notice much if the Heat win and the Big 3 or Ray Allen have big games. But if he’s effective and efficient off the bench, then that’s pretty much all the Heat have asked from him. Oh, and potentially getting a ring a year after everyone piled up on him after his troubles with the law and his release from the Phoenix Suns should be nice motivation too.

If the Heat three-peat, what does Riley have left to prove? Pick some random person off the street and groom them as his successor?
Pat Riley actually holds the trademark for the phrase “Three-Peat” so he would definitely be a happy man should the Heat accomplish that rare feat. I do think the next step for this franchise regardless of how this season plays out is building the team for the long haul and surrounding the Big 3, especially LeBron, with a more balanced roster in terms of not just having proven veterans but also with some younger players that the All-Stars can groom. We’ve seen some tremendous growth in a player such as Norris Cole who’s learned so much playing with them. But they’ve also let go of some prospects like Patrick Beverly in favor of veterans because they are understandably in win-now mode. But there will be roster spots open because players like Allen and Shane Battier won’t be around much longer and the Heat will have to get creative to avoid paying too much in luxury taxes. It will certainly be intriguing no matter which direction they go, but in Riley we trust.

Match-ups

Point Guard
The thing I hate about Mario Chalmers is that he’s a good player who gets slept on because of his teammates; and every so often, he reminds us why he’s been such an important part of this Heat team. That said, the best chance Chalmers and Cole have is to attack Vasquez off the dribble on offense, while taking driving/passing lanes away from him on defense and force him to be a shooter. While that plan should work, Lowry will be getting the bulk of the minutes at the point, so they need to figure something else out, and I frankly don’t think they can.
Edge: Raptors

Shooting Guard
Wade is looking/acting the part of the 47 year old that he is, but he is still deadly in his slow-motion state. He still rebounds very well for his advanced age, and sees the floor well. What I’m concerned about is Ross’ ability to keep Wade in front of him, and not give him unfettered access to the paint/rim. Beal got a lot of open looks from behind the arc, and rebounded the offensive glass very well last game. If Wade has those opportunities, it wont end pretty. What Ross can do is make Wade work on defense, forcing him to chase him around the court and hopefully tire him out.
Edge: Heat

Small Forward
LeBron > DeRozan. Normally I’d say force LeBron to shoot the ball, but he’s shooting 41% from behind the arc and 59% from the field. Much like with Wade, DeRozan needs to run LeBron around the court and hope that does something on the second night of a back-to-back. It probably wont, but there is really little DeRozan can do individually to shut him down. Much like the rest of the league, beating LeBron is a full-team, full-48 effort that the Raptors have been putting up lately. There’s also Beasely, who’s been enjoying a return to relevance, but the drop-off is so considerable that whatever he does shouldn’t hurt the Raptors.
Edge: Heat

Forward/Center
With Battier injured, Rashard Lewis has been getting the call to start at the 4, and while he isn’t totally useless, he’s pretty useless. We will be seeing a front-court by committee from the Heat with any combination of Bosh, Andersen, Beasely, Haslem and Anthony on the floor depending on what type of look Spoelstra is throwing at the Raptors. Both Amir and Jonas have been huge for the Raptors over the last month, but 2Pat will need to continue his hot shooting from the Wizards game. My only fear is that players like Bosh and Lewis will pull either Amir or Jonas far enough away from the paint with their shooting that opens driving lanes for LeBron/Wade, and gives Andersen room to be a pest. Regardless, the Raptors should be able to control the boards.
Edge: Raptors

Bench
With Battier injured, the Heat’s bench has been reduced to Jesus, Beasley and Cole. Not bad, but they don’t have the size and versatility to deal with the likes of our imports. Specifically, our bench is larger at the guard/wing slots than theirs; and deeper. While the big-3 historically have played big minutes, this season we’ve seen both Wade and Bosh dip playing fewer minutes. The reality is that LeBron is so good that the few minutes the bench will get wont hurt them much.
Edge: Raptors

The Line

The Heat are 6.5 point favourites with an over/under of 198.5. The Raptors need to take advantage of the fact that the Heat are on the 2nd night of a back-to-back and jump out and play aggressively from the tip. They can’t be lulled into a false sense of security because they beat the Pacers a week ago. This Heat team is a totally different animal, and needs to be respected at all times.

Heat by 2; it’s going to be a tight game.