For this game preview, I’d like to welcome a colleague who I consider one of the true blossoming writers covering the NBA. Nekias Duncan is well-known amongst the community that is #NBATwitter for his valuable in-depth basketball analysis, feature writing and stellar coverage of the Miami Heat for Miami Heat Beat. In preparation of Sunday afternoon’s clash, Nekias is here to give us a deep-dive look into the Heat’s season while also analyzing the looming matchup.
Without further adieu, here we go:
SA: Nekias, let’s face it — the Heat… are hot. Miami are winners of five of their last six and currently on a four-game winning streak. This includes impressive wins versus Golden State and the up-and-coming Nets. As much as Miami seem to be gaining momentum, they suffered some awful losses right before this win streak (Suns, Pistons blowout). Do you worry that this team still lacks an identity?
ND: I’d argue the exact opposite. They absolutely have an identity: they’re a tough-minded group of try-hards that want to make things ugly. The offense has been bad all year. They lack a top-tier creator, and rely heavily on the 3-ball for real success. They happen to be on a hot streak right now, spearheaded by the play of Kelly Olynyk, and that’s allowed them to hum enough while mucking up the game defensively.
SA: What two Heat players have taken the biggest leap and contrarily, the largest step backwards this season?
ND: Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have taken the biggest leaps. Winslow has turned into a consistent outside shooter, and is finally finishing well enough at the basket to open up the rest of his game. Richardson has been tasked with more offensive responsibility, and has responded with growth as a passer and pull-up shooter. On the downside, Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic have taken the largest steps back, though you could attribute that to injury. Waiters is trying to find a groove following his ankle surgery. He’s always been a high variance player offensively, but he’s pretty much been a turnstile defensively. Dragic has lost a step defensively, and has seen a slight dip as a finisher. The Heat currently have him coming off the bench — a move I wanted to see at the beginning of the year, and something that should continue moving forward.
SA: From the outside-looking-in, what have you observed that makes Toronto a 47-19 team?
ND: Toronto’s versatility is what stands out most to me. The Raptors can do so many things thanks to their personnel. They have the wings to go switch-heavy, the bigs to fill the paint, and enough shooting (though they’ve slightly underwhelmed in that regard) to make things work offensively.
SA: Ok, I just have to ask. What’s been going on with Whiteside this season? Has it been a mix of injuries? Consistently inconsistent performances? Trade rumors? Being benched? NBA moving away from the ‘Whiteside’ type centers? The DJ Khaled jynx? Seriously, what’s been going on in with 21?
ND: He’s had some slight injury woes this season, but he’s been good otherwise. He’s been Miami’s best rebounder and rim protector, though that should be expected. My biggest issue with Whiteside has been his effort and little things like screening. I’m proud to say I haven’t had those issues with him this season.
SA: What player matchup are you looking forward to most for this Sunday matinee game?
ND: Well, I wanted to see Kawhi Leonard and Justise Winslow go at it, but someone needs their load managed. Next on the list has to be Bam Adebayo vs. Pascal Siakam, which is basically the Spiderman pointing meme. Guys their size shouldn’t be as mobile or skilled as they are, so I’m looking forward to watching them do battle.
SA: The key to Miami pulling out a win versus Toronto is…?
ND: Miami just has to hit outside shots. They’re 17-10 when they shoot 38 percent or better from three, and 8-4 when they make 15 or more threes. With Leonard out, keeping Kyle Lowry in check will be key. He’s the head of the snake; cut him off, and the Heat should be able to match up well enough in the front court to swing things in their favor.
SA: Miami currently sits 8th in the East. What is your end-of-season projection for Miami’s conference seeding?
ND: At this point, they’ll probably finish 7th or 8th. The “forward thinking” fan in me still wouldn’t mind a losing streak to increase lottery odds, but it feels like the Heat have found a groove with their rotation and playstyle.
SA: In the hypothetical scenario where Miami qualifies for the NBA Playoffs, whom do you believe they have the best shot at upsetting? What team will they badly struggle with?
ND: The 6th seed is probably out of their wheelhouse, but a potential matchup with the Indiana Pacers would be their best chance at making noise. With no Victor Oladipo, the Heat would have a shot at winning an ugly fest. They should probably want no parts of Milwaukee, though they’ve played Giannis Antetokounmpo better than most over the last two and a half seasons. I’m just not sure Miami will be able to hang if Milwaukee gets their threes to drop.
You can find Nekias Duncan on Twitter at (@NekiasNBA).
TV: Sportsnet Ontario and Sportsnet 1 | Radio: TheFan590 | Tipoff: 3:30 PM EST
PG: Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Loyd
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell
SF: Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Chris Boucher
OUT: Kawhi Leonard (Load management), Fred Van Vleet (thumb)
PG: Justice Winslow, Goran Dragic
SG: Dion Waiters, Dwayne Wade
SF: Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, Emanuel Terry
PF: Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, Derrick Jones Jr., Duncan Robinson, Ryan Anderson
C: Bam Adebayo, Hassan Whiteside