Gameday: Raptors @ Heat, March 23

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The weird late-season scheduling quirks continue, as the Toronto Raptors visit the Miami Heat for the second time in less than two weeks, the second of a three-games-in-one-month set (one the Raptors also have with the Indiana Pacers, albeit even more compressed). This also kicks off the third-last road “trip” of the season for the Raptors, who have three two-game treks remaining, none that require them to travel further than this relatively light Miami-Dallas segment. It’s nice to head into the postseason without having to overextend yourself down the stretch, even if it does mean redundantly playing the same teams over and over.

And last time didn’t go so well for the Raptors. The loss to the Thunder stands out as the effort that led to the players-only meeting, but the Miami loss precluding it by a few days probably set the table. The bench players tried to mount a late comeback in that one, sure, but it really wasn’t in question for long stretches, and the Raptors’ primary players looked out of sorts.

Things have gone better over the last three games, with Toronto improving to 9-5 since the All-Star break thanks to a stifling defense and a well-timed emergence from an extended shooting slump. It’s been enough to pull the Raptors back within a game of Washington for the No. 3 seed and provide them a five-game cushion over Atlanta for home court in the first round. Miami, meanwhile, just keeps rolling despite injury after injury, putting Erik Spoelstra quite firmly in the discussion for Coach of the Year. Miami’s now surged and grabbed the No. 8 seed, and they’re nearly as close to No. 5 (two games) as they are to No. 9 (1.5). This one matters for both sides, quite significantly.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, Kevin Kraczkowski of Hot Hot Hoops, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: James Johnson was a bit of a divisive figure during his tenure(s) in Toronto. He’s been a damn revelation for the Heat, with a slimmer frame, a more consistent energy, and most importantly, the freedom to simply be James Johnson. Where is this Heat team without Johnson this season?

Kevin Kraczkowski: Johnson’s a legitimate point forward, with smooth handles, a clean release on his outside shot, and wear-it-on-his-sleeve toughness. When you last saw him, he was markedly heavier and accordingly less athletic. Now, he’s one of the strongest players on the team. His shooting touch is the best it has ever been, with a .485 field goal percentage and a .348 three-point success rate, both career bests. His foul shooting has seen better days however. His .694 success rate from the stripe is just above his career average but well below the .844 clip he averaged with the Memphis Grizzlies just three seasons ago.

Not content with increasing his shooting percentages, Johnson has improved EVERYTHING. He has career highs with 26.6 minutes, 12.3 points, and 4.8 rebounds. It’s not just because he’s playing more minutes, either. His PER/36 stats also rank him highly, with 16.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game.

Defensively, coach Erik Spoelstra can put him on anyone one through five in the opposing lineup. That’s pretty handy considering that ace shot blocker Hassan Whiteside may be out of the lineup against the Raps. Also, he never seems to get tired now. Watching his energy, his motor, makes it apparent that he could easily play 35 minutes or so per game. It’s always a treat when Johnson and namesake Tyler Johnson get whistled in partway through the first quarter. The two of them have notably complementary styles, and have been the main reason that Miami’s bench is the best in the NBA this year.

Blake Murphy: Rental prices on Waiters Island are starting to rival Toronto’s obscene market, but the bubble just burst with Waiters hitting the shelf. You talked about the team’s next man up approach. Who fills that scoring void here? Is Josh Richardson ready to return to his late-2015-16 ways? Can Wayne Ellington shoot even more threes?

Kevin Kraczkowski: Ellington is known affectionately to Heat fans as “The Man with the Golden Arm.” The third piece of Miami’s four-headed bench brigade (along with center Willie Reed) is now with his seventh team in eight NBA season. Like Johnson, he’s averaging a career-best 11.3 scoring average, with a commensurate .379 three-point rate. He averages seven attempts per game, and 10 attempts overall, and ranks amongst the league leaders in catch-and-shoot threes. Can he shoot more threes? I hope so.

As to next man up, Waiters is out for at least another three weeks as the Heat make this last push for the postseason, and we down in Miami certainly hope that Josh Richardson can fill the void. He’s certainly shown flashes of his old self, but he’s been hampered by a seemingly endless laundry list of small ailments that have kept him from really hitting his stride. He’s making just .301 from deep this season after setting the court on fire with a .461 rate last season as a rookie.

Richardson can make up for that by getting to the rim and finishing like Waiters has been lately. Until the 13-game win streak, Waiters was one of the most underperforming finishers I have seen in a Heat uniform, all flash and no finish. However, urban legend has it that Goran Dragic took him aside and told him a “secret,” called the “cold shoulder.” Waiters has been getting a lot of press lately as a sinker of daggers, an assassin in the last minutes of the game, but what was setting him apart was his newfound ability to drive AND finish. If Dragic can pass some of that magic on to the young Richardson, I believe his efficiency will improve accordingly.

Blake Murphy: I mentioned the playoffs. I’m not sure I’m supposed to, with the Heat still fighting for their lives, one game up on Detroit. But how confident are you in Miami locking down one of these final spots? From there, there’s little chance they upset Cleveland, but could they put a shock into a Boston or Washington?

Kevin Kraczkowski: It’s no secret that the Heat have been the hottest team in the league for the second half of this season. After starting out 11-30, they ran off 13 straight wins, and since then have gone 11-6. If they can continue winning 80% of their games through the rest of the campaign, they’ll finish at 44-38. It looks doable, too. Amongst Miami’s recent fallen foes include the Houston Rockets (twice), the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), and even your boys, the Raptors, two weeks ago.

The resurgence is real, and most NBA Power Rankings now have Miami in the top 10, some even in the top five. I honestly can’t tell you why they were so bad through the first half of the season, but what you’re seeing now is a progression to the mean. If you’re looking for a seed of doubt, I’d say that Miami’s recent injury woes to Whiteside (13 stitches to his wrist on Tuesday) and Waiters could throw a wrench into their plans, but they’ve already overcome the loss of Justise Winslow and Chris Bosh to get where they are now.

As to possible first round matchups, Miami will most likely finish with the seventh, sixth, or even fifth seed if everything keeps tracking it’s current course. That will have them against either Boston, Washington, or Toronto. Boston’s the biggest headache of the three in my opinion, but the Raptors are a different beast with Lowry in the fold, and a sleeper to upset Cleveland in the second round. I honestly think Miami ends up with the sixth seed and defeats the Wizards in the opening round, only to run into Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics. Hey Raptors’ fans, wouldn’t it be nice to play Miami in the Eastern Conference championship? It could happen….

Kevin asked me some questions as well.

Kevin Kraczkowski: Miami operates under the credo, “Next man up.” Who’s been stepping up in place of Kyle Lowry, and what is his projected return date?

Blake Murphy: We still don’t have a firm date for Lowry. He underwent surgery on Feb. 28, and the team has only said that the hope is that he can return by the postseason. Woj reported that there was optimism that he could be back in four-to-five weeks, which would make sometime next week the target. Personally, I’ve been holding out hope we can return by April 2, which would let him get a few games in while sitting back-to-backs.

As for next man up, that’s mostly been Cory Joseph, who spent the bulk of the time before the All-Star break under-performing. The move to starting has mostly agreed with him, and while he’s still curiously had off nights on the defensive end, he’s been much better than before Lowry went down. The numbers show as much: He’s basically inherited Lowry’s extreme on/off splits. Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet have tried to fill in backup minutes, and each is an intriguing prospect with some marquee nights on their resume, but they’ve been as inconsistent as you’d expect with very inexperienced guards.

Kevin Kraczkowski: Fred VanVleet, in limited time, has matched Lowry’s team-leading .417 three point success rate. What is the rationale for playing him only eight minutes per night?

Blake Murphy: He’s behind Wright in the rotation, really. The Raptors will dabble with multi-guard looks, and VanVleet’s seen time as a third point guard more often than the Raptors used a third point guard before. He has also gotten the nod in Wright’s place in the second half of two of the last three games, including a big comeback win against Chicago on Tuesday. Wright is probably a better all-around player right now, and Dwane Casey’s been giving him first crack. VanVleet’s shooting is legitimate, though, small sample size be damned – he’s likely the team’s third-best long-range shooter overall. But, yeah, he’s a rookie and the third (normally fourth) guard on the depth chart, so consider his playing time fluid.

Kevin Kraczkowski: It seems I’m spending all my questions on the point guard position, so what’s one more? Toronto is last in the NBA with 18.2 dimes per game. At first blush, that doesn’t seem to be tracking to get any better, with Lowry out. Would you say the Raptors are over reliant on isolation and hero ball? What’s the key to breaking that habit?

Blake Murphy: The iso-heavy reputation really isn’t as warranted as some fans make it seem – the Raptors are sixth in the NBA with 8.7 percent of their plays coming on isolations, heavy, but not nearly as extreme as a Cleveland or Dallas. But it is absolutely true that the bulk of their offense is designed to get Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in a position to attack a mismatch. It’s a lot of switch-baiting, or getting the defense rotating so they can attack down-hill. DeRozan is also a great post scorer, and post-ups slow things down further. They could probably be better whipping the ball around and sharing the touches (Sunday’s win was proof it can work), but the roster and offensive system have been built around DeRozan and Lowry and what they do well…changing too much might wind up cutting the nose off to spite the face.

Raptors updates
Just when the Raptors start figuring things out, more change comes their way. Serge Ibaka will miss Thursday’s game to serve the one-game suspension he received for his altercation with Robin Lopez on Tuesday. Ibaka has been perhaps Toronto’s second-best player since arriving, and Dwane Casey will have to go back to the uncomfortable options he had at the four before the trade deadline. Pascal Siakam has been recalled from the D-League and could conceivably start if Casey wants to maintain his rotations, or Lucas Nogueira could be brought back from obscurity. The option to start small opposite the Heat’s own small look exists, too, with an extra wing drawing in. Casey could go a lot of different ways with the minutes split here.

Looking on the wings, it’s notable that P.J. Tucker has essentially closed every tight Raptors game. He leads the team in fourth-quarter minutes since the All-Star break, and while Norman Powell ranks second, Powell’s only played seven “clutch” minutes to 32 for Tucker (hat-tip to Chris Black for that one). Powell has also averaged just 17.8 minutes since DeMarre Carroll returned, and he may now be the fourth wing in the rotation, a precarious position when Kyle Lowry returns and the team uses more two-point guard lineups. This is something I wrote about in much greater detail over at The Athletic yesterday, with some great insight from Powell and Tucker (I know paywalls are what they are, but you can use this link for 20 percent off subscriptions). It definitely seems as if Tucker could have a major influence on Powell’s career, even if he eats into his minutes in the short term.

PG: Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker
PF: Pascal Siakam, Patrick Patterson
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo
OUT: Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka

Heat updates
With Dion Waiters joining the cast of Heat on the shelf, they can ill afford to lose another body. Naturally, Hassan Whiteside required 13 stitches in his wrist on Tuesday. Whiteside said Wednesday that he is intent on playing in this one – he was able to work out despite having the hand heavily wrapped a day prior – but there’s been no confirmation from the team side. It’s probably best to consider him a game-time call (he’s officially listed as probable, mind you). Look for Willie Reed to start in his place if he can’t go, and while Reed’s a nice piece, losing Whiteside takes away a big piece of the Heat gameplan at both ends of the floor.

PG: Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson
SG: Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington
SF: Rodney McGruder, James Johnson
PF: Luke Babbitt, Okaro White
C: (Hassan Whiteside), Willie Reed, Udonis Haslem
TBD: Hassan Whiteside
OUT: Justise Winslow, Josh McRoberts, Chris Bosh, Dion Waiters

The Line
The Raptors are 4.5-point underdogs in this one, a nod to how well Miami is playing of late. While Whiteside’s status could nudge things, the Raptors are down Lowry and Ibaka, too, hence the line suggesting Miami is a little better even stripping away home court. The Heat have been really, really good lately. The over-under is at 204. Both teams play fairly slow but like to push the ball off of misses, and both have shown some nice defensive chops, so it wouldn’t be surprising if that total comes down a bit.

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