Leaders of the Eastern Conference, winners of five straight, and the only team in the top four of both offensive and defensive rating. Life has never been better as a Toronto Raptors fan.
This incredible roll started after the Raptors dropped a one-point heart breaker to the Miami Heat on Jan. 9, when they trounced the old Cleveland Cavaliers and took the Golden State Warriors down the final seconds.
That loss, though.
It really was an old-fashioned slug fest, full with an 89 point outing for the Raptors, a combined total of 11 three-pointers made, and even a bit of duel between Serge Ibaka (who else?) and James Johnson. Ibaka was wise enough to not try and escalate the matter for the sake of the #avecclasse brand, but did pick a one-game suspension. DeMar DeRozan was riled up after the game, too, and rightfully so after Goran Dragic appeared to spit at him.
If you’re expecting a DeRozan revenge game, I like where your head’s at. DeRozan averages 22.7 points against the Heat for his career, only averaging more against the Portland Trail Blazers. In fact, over his previous nine regular season games against Miami, that scoring average soars all the way up to 30.1.
Jonas Valanciunas vs. Hassan Whiteside is always a fun matchup to look forward to, and since the Heat center loves to chase blocks, I’m fully expecting him to bite on a Jonas pump-fake from three. Don’t let me down, Hassan.
What the last contest between these two teams also gave us is a rare sample of crunch time minutes. This is one of the games where I thought the Raptors did a fairly decent job offensively in the closing minutes, and if not for a missed wide-open three-pointer and a missed layup by Norman Powell in the final minute, Toronto would have come away with the victory.
The final play for the Heat drew the most attention, as a miscommunication between Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby led to Siakam closing out on Wayne Ellington in the right corner in extremely hurried fashion, only for Ellington to take advantage of it and go all the way to the rack for the game-winning layup.
Toronto won’t mind another opportunity to show they’ve learned and grown from that moment, with only a sinking Chicago Bulls team waiting for them on the second night of a back-to-back, on Valentine’s Day no less.
The game tips off at 7:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet One, or you can listen in at Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
I know this is when you’re accustomed to having someone from the upside down help tee up the game, but I’m going to change it up a bit since I don’t have a column to write on here till Monday. Sshhh, don’t tell Blake. Here are some of the things the Heat make me think about instead:
Is a vet worth it?
The Miami Heat aren’t looking to give Dwyane Wade a Kobe-like farewell and neither is he looking for that. They believe he can contribute, and so does he.
Do the Raptors need that guy through the buyout market? As Marco Belinelli seemed to suggest, the Raptors are certainly in the market for one.
Belinelli said several teams including OKC, TOR, MIL, & POR all tried to sign him, but he chose Philly.
— Jon Johnson (@jonjohnsonwip) February 12, 2018
Sure, the bench is young and inexperienced, but the fact of the matter is they have played with poise and maturity for the majority of this regular season and have earned the right to continue to do so into the postseason. I’m not a fan of the idea of bringing in someone who’s not only going to disrupt their functionality, but possibly have them looking over their shoulder and worrying about mistakes as well.
Assertiveness and youthful exuberance have been among the hallmarks of the young guys, and I wouldn’t want to risk doing anything that gets in the way of that. Let them play, and as Casey says, let them make hard mistakes. The Raptors will only be better in the long-term for it.
The second half of the Heat’s 2016-17 season is one for the books. To finish 30-11 after starting 11-30 is nothing short of remarkable, but their success this season has also come in peaks and valleys. It hasn’t been as dramatic, but they’ve gone as their three-point shot has gone.
For the Raptors, their talent, depth, and years of continuity mean they’re further along in their program, which has put them in position to absolutely annihilate teams when they’re sniping from deep, but navigating through crunch moments when they don’t.
C.J. Miles is in the midst of what is hopefully an extended hot stretch, but has struggled for consistency for much of the season. Ibaka’s shot has come and gone as well, leaving Lowry and possibly VanVleet as the ones the team looks for a degree of reliability from the outside. O.K., maybe Jonas is getting there too.
So much of what happens in the postseason comes down to that one word, adjustments. The improvement Casey has shown as the years have gone by has in many ways mirrored the progress of the team, and how he’s handled matchups against those in the upper echelon of coaching is something I’ve looked forward to all season. Erik Spoelstra is obviously a part of that list.
300 wins don’t seem like many relative to Don Nelson’s 1,335 for his career, but Casey’s journey has been great to watch. He’s clearly made his biggest strides this season by overhauling the offence seamlessly and maintaining the success of his bench units despite limiting Lowry’s minutes and losing Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson.
The next step is to seem him pull off some fancy chess moves in the playoffs, but just as DeRozan has continually proven his doubters wrong season after season, it’s time to start showing that same faith and trust in Casey as well. He’s earned it.
With all the rest the starters have been getting off late, it’s hard to imagine that one of them is actually a doubt to play. That’s where we are, though, after the ankle sprain OG Anunoby suffered against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday afternoon.
In case you missed it, Dwane Casey told the media on Monday that the rookie is sore, the ankle sprain isn’t too bad, and that he might even be able to play if it were a playoff game.
Dwane Casey says OG Anunoby is sore. Ankle sprain isn’t too bad and maybe he’d go in a playoff game, no firm status for tomorrow.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) February 12, 2018
That was a day ago, and considering the magical healing powers that Anunoby’s body seem to possess, perhaps it shouldn’t shock anyone if ankle feels just fine for the game and is able to play. On the other side of the coin is the fact that this is the first half of a back-to-back, and with the all-star break very much in the periphery, it would seem an unnecessary risk to push him to be ready.
Such is the beauty of depth that Casey can just throw in Norman Powell into the starting lineup, leaving the Bench Mob/Jurrasic Spark intact to do their thing while also continuing the season-long search for Stormin’ Norman. There have been fragments of growth for Powell, with a bit more consistency on the defensive end and also a few plays suggesting he’s developing his in-between game. This is the by-product of good in-house competition, and that should only serve to further enhance the growth rate of the current youth on the Raptors.
If Anunoby sits out as expected, I assume it’s just a matter of time before one of Malcolm Miller or Alfonzo McKinnie is called up as insurance. McKinnie had a terrific game against the Maine Red Claws, finishing with 22 points, nine rebounds and several key plays down the stretch to clinch the 905’s eighth victory in 10 games. None were more spectacular than this put-back jam to seal the victory.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson
Dwyane Wade’s return gives this team a much needed jolt and his veteran leadership could be just what they need for the stretch run. After losing five straight, the Chicago native’s return to Wade County sparked them to a rousing victory over the surging Milwaukee Bucks, and they’ll be hoping to carry that momentum into the Air Canada Centre.
The move for Wade makes sense. The Heat don’t have a ton of playmaking off their bench, and for all the things that went poorly for the Cleveland Cavaliers pre-trade deadline explosion, the 36-year-old veteran did a good-ish job propping up their bench units. If he can do the same for Miami, they’ll be thrilled.
Kelly Olynyk has already been ruled out for a left shoulder strain he suffered against the Orlando Magic, and will also miss their game on Wednesday in Philadelphia. The Canadian gets an early start to his all-star break, but do you really need one when Miami is home?
The Heat are taking on a bit of a different look since the last time we saw them, with two lineup changes in the two games since Olynyk has been out. They went with a Dragic-Richardson-Winslow-Jones Jr.-Whiteside lineup against the Houston Rockets, before slotting in Tyler Johnson for Derrick Jones Jr. in their win over the Bucks.
Spoelstra has also played Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo together more, and frankly, it might even make some sense for them to use those two from the tip to match the size of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Winslow isn’t really a floor spacer and his athleticism is probably better off against someone like Pascal Siakam off the bench. Just thinking out loud, but my guess is they roll with what worked against Milwaukee.
PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Dwyane Wade
SF: Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Luke Babbitt
PF: Justise Winslow, Jordan Mickey
C: Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo, Udonis Haslem
OUT: Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder
Sioux Falls: A.J. Hammons, Derrick Walton Jr., Derrick Jones Jr.
The Raptors are -7.5 favorites with a 206.5 over/under. There may be a slight shift once there’s official word on Anunoby’s availability, but that’s about it.