Gameday: Heat @ Raptors, Jan. 9

SEGABABA and JJ Revenge Game all in one.

The Toronto Raptors are set to begin their toughest three-game home-stand of the season. They did not put their best foot forward heading into it. A frustrating performance in Brooklyn on Monday saw the Raptors dragged to overtime, and while they’d eventually win, they played heavy minutes on the first night of a back-to-back. Oh, and they may have lost Kyle Lowry to injury, as the point guard left the game with acute back spasms after Joe Harris and Quincy Acy hit him with The Fall of Man.

The week ahead is tough. The Miami Heat visit Tuesday with a rested Cleveland Cavaliers team in Toronto on Thursday, the Golden State Warriors to follow, and an afternoon trip to Philadelphia on the horizon after that. That’s a hard enough seven days at full strength. Without Lowry, it would be even tougher. Exhausted because day one of a five-in-eight stretch unnecessarily went to overtime is just getting in your own way.

So, yeah, the Heat are in Toronto, and while they come in shorthanded, they come in playing some pretty good ball. Goran Dragic is a demon in transition, Wayne Ellington is among the league’s best high-volume 3-point shooters, James Johnson is going to be out to hit some MMA moves on his old team, and Hassan Whiteside is often a challenge. The Heat shoot a lot of threes and shoot them pretty well, and they take care of their own glass. If there’s an area Toronto can swing things, it may be in the turnover department, as Miami is susceptible to coughing it up (this could be especially big if Delon Wright starts). Jonas Valanciunas should play a big part here, too, opposite Whiteside. It was going to be a tough game regardless, and now it’s tougher than it maybe needed to be.

The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 1/4 and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Surya Fernandez of Hot Hot Hoops, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: After a somewhat shaky 7-9 start that led to some questions as to whether the Heat were right to keep this core together, the team has taken off a bit. They’re 14-8 since, firmly in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot and within striking distance of home court in the first round. What’s changed for this team since the opening month?

Surya Fernandez: Erik Spoelstra kept shuffling around his starting lineup, sometimes because injuries necessitated it and sometimes to see which combination of players worked best as a starting unit. So you’d see key players such as Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow in and out of the starting 5. So now there’s more cohesion in the rotation coupled with Olynyk looking more and more comfortable in his role and players such as Tyler Johnson and especially Richardson really taking advantage of their increased role while others have been absent. It’s also helped that James Johnson and Whiteside are being worked back in after missing several games due to injury even while the team waits on Dion Waiters, Winslow and Rodney McGruder to get healthy.

Blake Murphy: Looking longer-term, were they right to keep this core together? Obviously, they had the tremendous finish to last year and have played well the last six weeks, but with so many second-tier salaries and a thinned-out draft chest, it might be hard for the Heat to push beyond this level. What’s their four-year window or so look like?

Surya Fernandez: I think it’s still too early to tell. They haven’t been anything close to full strength last season and now this season as well. Some players play well and then others struggle or get injured and then vice versa. Pat Riley and the organization swung for the fences with Gordon Hayward last summer and then were left to either start over again with new players from an underwhelming free agent market or go for continuity after such a remarkable run in the second half of last season. Olynyk has also turned out to be a smart signing. Looking long term, Riley won’t ever stop trying to tinker with this roster and perhaps package some of these players in order to try to land a bonafide All-Star, which is what this team really needs.

Blake Murphy: Last year, James Johnson was a revelation coming over from Toronto. We’ve beaten the Johnson-in-Toronto stuff to death. How has he looked in his second year with the Heat, now that he has long-term security? It doesn’t seem, from outside, like he’s lost any of the progress he made in 2016-17.

Surya Fernandez: Johnson has been hindered with some nagging injuries as of late and he almost looked lost as a starter to open the regular season but he has looked better with each passing game and the Heat quite frankly missed him when he was out. He brings so much versatility along with the ball-handling, playmaking and attacking mentality that can give him the advantage against his man.

Blake Murphy: Josh Richardson and Norman Powell signed the exact same four-year, $42-million extension this year. While Powell had maybe outperformed him to that point, Richardson has decidedly had the better season post-extension. What’s been the biggest key to Richardson taking another step forward and solidifying himself as a core piece?

Surya Fernandez: Richardson really had to believe in himself that he could take his game to another level and really step up on offense. He’s always prided himself on his excellent defense and he hasn’t lost sight of that, so he’s giving the Heat great production on both ends of the court. He’s been directly responsible for a few of the Heat’s recent close victories with his clutch play.

Blake Murphy: Wayne Ellington. Who knew?

Surya Fernandez: Heat fans did! He’s been a fan favorite at the AA Arena since he arrived and he’s been just silky smooth from outside that you’re almost surprised when they don’t go in. And good thing too, with the Heat missing a long range sharpshooter since the legendary Ray Allen left the NBA.

Raptors updates
The big focus here, obviously, is the injury Kyle Lowry suffered in overtime Monday night. Lowry was hit by Quincy Acy and Joe Harris going for an offensive rebound and landed on the floor hard, eventually requiring assistance to get to the locker room. Lowry would later reveal he was off to get X-rays “on my ass,” and the team later called the injury acute back spasms. Lowry will be reevaluated Tuesday, and without a shootaround in the back-to-back scenario, there may not be an update until closer to game time. It would seem a safe bet that he’ll sit as a precaution, but wait for word later before making plans as such. Always hard to tell for sure with the Raptors.

If Lowry sits, Delon Wright would figure to start. Dwane Casey likes to maintain his rotations and all, but unless he plans to start Lorenzo Brown, that’s a moot point regardless here. Wright has been playing well, and this should be a nice short-term test for him. That slides Fred VanVleet into a true backup point guard role rather than the split-guard bench he and Wright operate together, putting a little more ball-handling duty on his shoulders. This would probably also be an opening for Norman Powell to get more run, as there will be additional backcourt minutes to soak up. That might be the one small silver lining here (not that there really is one), given that Powell hasn’t gotten much of a chance to get back on track the last two weeks or so.

The other question will be whether Lucas Nogueira has jumped Jakob Poeltl for the backup center spot temporarily. Nogueira played well in spot-duty Friday and then played over Poeltl in the second half Monday, contributing good minutes. This might be back to being the fluid, game-by-game, matchup-based situation it was to start the year.

With the 905 back off the road and the G League Showcase going down this week, Bruno Caboclo and Alfonzo McKinnie should be back with the big club here. Expect Brown to be up, too, if Lowry’s going to miss time.

PG: (Kyle Lowry), Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: Kyle Lowry
905: Malcolm Miller

Heat updates
Miami comes in here in a bit of a bad way. Already down Rodney McGruder longer-term, they’ll also be without Dion Waiters and Justise Winslow here. Waiters is dealing with an ankle injury that’s kept him out indefinitely since just before Christmas, while Winslow has been out nearly a month due to a left knee strain and is still a bit away from returning.

That leaves the roster fairly thin and the starting lineup a bit of a question mark. Most recently, Erik Spoelstra has started both of his natural point guards and played Kelly Olynyk as the starting power forward, both moves aimed at keeping Wayne Ellington and James Johnson in their comfortable bench roles. The rotation runs only nine deep out of necessity, with new two-way piece Derrick Jones Jr. filling the ninth spot most recently. Bam Adebayo has been the other name in frequent use, and he’s been really impressive as the team’s backup center here in his rookie season.

How bad have things been for Miami? No lineup has played more than 125 minutes together. None that will be available Tuesday have played more than 75 (the projected starters, who have been slightly outscored). There are some moderately used groups in there since it’s been the same injury sheet for a few weeks, it’s just hard to get a read on which groups may be most effective in the long run. In any case, the Heat have a lot of athletes and shooters to throw at the Raptors, which is always a challenge.

PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington
SF: Josh Richardson, Derrick Jones Jr.
PF: Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, Jordan Mickey
C: Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo, Udonis Haslem
OUT: Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder, Okaro White
TBD: None
Sioux Falls: A.J. Hammons, Derrick Walton Jr.

The line
The Raptors are 6.5-point favorites with a 208 over-under. The line has already moved from Raptors -7.5, and it’ll probably move a little more Miami’s way if Lowry’s ruled out.

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