Let’s take a trip down memory lane for a moment.
Apr. 11, 2018 to be exact. The Toronto Raptors traveled to Miami to take on the Heat in the final game of the regular season, motivated by the possibility of winning 60 games — a goal they had set for themselves before the season began. In a tie game with under two minutes remaining, Fred VanVleet is absolutely pummeled by a screen from Bam Adebayo and throws his shoulder out of whack. He misses the majority of the first-round series against the Washington Wizards, doesn’t look quite the same against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Masai Ujiri goes to work in the off-season.
Was that a turning point? Probably not. LeBronto gonna LeBronto, but what it does serve as is a reminder of the physicality Miami brings to the table every time out. With the way the injury bug has inflicted the Raptors throughout the 2018-19 season, the home team will do well to match that intensity for 48 minutes, a requirement in beating the Heat.
Erik Spoelstra coaches the heck out of his ball club, and despite already languishing four games under .500 in the early season, the absences of Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters will only further stoke their fire to win through sheer grit and determination.
They have talent, too. Josh Richardson is having a career year averaging 20.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists while Hassan Whiteside has made a strong start to the year with averages of 14 points, 14.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks through 17 games. Rodney McGruder has doubled his minutes and scoring output while maintaining a steady stroke from the outside and Dwyane Wade continues to provide leadership and playmaking off the bench.
With the aforementioned names missing, though, Toronto’s focus should be on ensuring the likes of Wayne Ellington, James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk don’t go off for a Gerald Henderson night. Ellington, in particular, scored a career-high 32 points in that final game of the 2017-18 regular season against the Raptors that included eight 3-pointers.
How’s old buddy, old pal James Johnson doing? Miserably, for now. After recovering from a hernia, Johnson has averaged just five points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and is yet to tally a single steal or block. He’s shooting just 17.4 percent from the field and one can only hope it’s just a case of him getting his legs under him and working his way back to 100 percent in the second year of a 3-year worth in excess of $43 million.
Kamloops, B.C., native Kelly Olynyk has had a rough start to the season and was benched for Tuesday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets but returned to the rotation for Friday’s win in Chicago.
For the Raptors, they will be hoping their hot shooting against the Washington Wizards carries for a stretch. Toronto hit 43.6 percent of their 39 three-pointers Friday, all the more impressive considering they missed their first four attempts from deep. The lid has been due to come off for some time now with the improved three-point threats on the roster, and this Heat defense that allows the eighth fewest points per 100 possessions (107.1) per Cleaning the Glass will provide a stern test of that.
With Norman Powell the only member preventing a full-strength rotation, the Raptors will hope to find some consistency playing at least once every other day between now and Dec. 16.
Outside of that, Blake Murphy of The Athletic wrote about the signs that playing Pascal Siakam with the bench unit in exchange for OG Anunoby could help eradicate some of the in-game inconsistency we’ve seen from the Raptors despite some lopsided final scores, so do what you can to support our home and native star.
While we’re on the subject, you can help support Raptors Republic, too, if you like.
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Vivek Jacob: Have the freedom of movement changes magnified Miami’s offensive concerns in the sense that they don’t have enough guys to maximize the advantage on offense? Are their rotation issues that are preventing them from producing more offensively?
Nekias Duncan: I’m not sure if it’s the freedom of movement rules more than it’s Miami’s lack of a real defense bender. Josh Richardson has taken a huge step, but he’s not a guy that can get to the rim whenever he wants. Goran Dragic was the closest thing Miami had, but he’s seen a bit of a decline, and he hasn’t been entirely healthy this season.
I will say, Miami’s rotations have been a little head-scratch worthy. Injuries play a part, but running out lineups with, say, Derrick Jones Jr. and Hassan Whiteside certainly don’t help a group that needs to maximize spacing. There are tweaks that can be made to better utilize Miami’s more important pieces.
Vivek: Over the second half of last season, it looked as though Bam Adebayo was forcing Erik Spoelstra’s hand into crunch time minutes over Hassan Whiteside. Is it all about engagement level with Hassan? What else is behind the improved productivity?
Nekias: I think it’s 55 percent engagement, 45 percent health. Whiteside obviously wasn’t right last year; knee troubles sapped him of his explosiveness. He already had issues defending in space and holding his own against smaller lineups. His inability to move laterally last year made it nearly impossible at times.
The fact that he feels better has led to improved play. He’s done a better job of screening and getting himself open. That has led to more touches, and those touches have led to better effort overall.
Vivek: After missing out on Jimmy Butler, does Pat Riley make it a priority to land someone like a Bradley Beal? Which direction do you sense this franchise is headed come Dec. 15 and into the trade deadline?
Nekias: If a guy like John Wall or Bradley Beal becomes available (and discounted), Miami should absolutely sniff around to see if a deal can be made. They’re currently in this weird space where they’re not serious contenders in the East, but aren’t bad enough to be real lottery players. They need to choose a side pretty soon.
At this point, though, I’d anticipate Miami is closer to taking a “down” year than pulling off a deal. Outside of a win against Portland, the Heat havent fared particularly well against good teams. They’ve also struggled with bad teams; even their win against Chicago ended up becoming closer than expected because of a horrid second half.
Considering Miami’s current state, the hierarchy in the East, and, well, the Warriors, it may make more sense for the Heat to become sellers rather than make a push for a star that may not take them over the top.
Vivek: At the same age, it appears Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry are headed in opposite directions. Is this just a case of a slow start for Dragic or do you see this as the first signs of a real decline?
Nekias: Dragic is definitely starting to decline. It was evident last season when he went from a mostly fine team defender to a flat-out liability. He couldn’t stay connected to quicker guards in pick-and-roll, leaving Miami open to constant attacks to their “drop” coverage.
This year, we’ve seen Miami hide Dragic defensively more than ever. He still tries, but the loss of foot speed isnt easy to overcome. He’s also seen quite a dip in his finishing ability, something he’s always been lauded for.
Vivek: Josh Richardson has unequivocally made “the leap.” What’s next for him in his development? Are there areas of his game that have exceeded expectations that you’d expect to regress in any way?
Nekias: The next step for Richardson is finding a go-to move. That probably won’t happen without growth in his handle.
As of now, he can probe and make basic reads in pick-and-roll. He’s confident pulling up for free throw line middies, and he’s added the pull-up three to his bag. Being able to get to the rim without a pick will open things up for himself and others. Right now, he can’t consistently force rotations without a little help. That’s fine for now — he’s still really freaking good — but to become a true star, he has to reach a certain level of shot creation.
The Raptors are inching closer towards full health. With C.J. Miles and OG Anunoby returning to the fold against the Washington Wizards, it’s just Norman Powell that remains unavailable. Add to that the fact that Toronto doesn’t play another back-to-back till Dec. 11 and 12, Kawhi Leonard should be a regular fixture for the next little while.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: Danny Green, Malachi Richardson
SF: Kawhi Leonard, C.J. Miles
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Greg Monroe
OUT: Norman Powell
The Heat confirmed that Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters did not travel with the team during this road trip, missing their previous game against the Chicago Bulls as well.
PG: Josh Richardson
SG: Wayne Ellington, Dwyane Wade
SF: Rodney McGruder, Justise Winslow
PF: James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Derrick Jones Jr.
C: Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo, Udonis Haslem
OUT: Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters
The Raptors are 12-point favorites and the over/under is set at 218.5.