Miami Heat Series Preview: Thoughts and Notes
After coming off a thrilling, yet still worrisome, Game 7 win against the Indiana Pacers to catapult them out of the first round for only the second time in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors are preparing to face a veteran laden team in the Miami Heat.
While this series does not feature any player that is as talented from an all-around perspective as Indiana Pacer Paul George, there are numerous individual talents that will define the series. Let’s work our way through the most important ones for each team.
Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson
Miami’s ensemble of wing players that are both bulky and crafty cannot be ignored. Unfortunately for the Raptors, they don't have any experience guarding both at once. Only one game was played between the two eastern conference foes after the arrival of Joe Johnson and Dwyane Wade was inactive that night. The Raptors weren’t at full strength either, sporting a starting lineup that featured two players, in James Johnson and Luis Scola, that have worked their way out of the rotation for more qualified players.
That in mind, it still will be interesting to see how Toronto matches up with the Miami wings. Demarre Carroll presents the most obvious answer, as he is a well rounded player that is both quick enough laterally to chase players around on and off-ball screens while not giving up much in the weight department to defend in the post. The only issue aside from Carroll’s health, is that there is only one of him. The rest of Toronto’s starting lineup presents imperfect choices.
Both Lowry and DeRozan are smaller, slimmer guards who one can assume would have difficult with the herky-jerky craftiness of both Johnson and Wade in the post as well as in tight spaces in the pick and roll. Experimenting with Lowry on one of either Wade or Johnson (preferably Wade) while allowing Lowry to exert tons of effort for one or two possessions at a time seems like a good experimental look. Beyond that, Toronto’s backcourt is likely to aggressively front both Wade and Johnson in the post, creating an advantage once the over-the-top pass is converted.
Patterson, the newest member of the Raptors starting lineup, has the bulk and height to combat a post up, but it remains to be seen how he would fair on a consistent basis on the perimeter. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he and Valanciunas successfully negotiate a high pick and roll without another opportunity opening up for the Miami offense.
Beyond that, the remaining guards and wings that Toronto possesses off the bench are intriguing, but still have perceived weaknesses. Will Norman Powell’s first round excellence continue in round two when post defense becomes a premium? The only time in which he had issue when guarding George was when the Indiana forward bullied him down in the post. Toronto sent help as a preventative measure, but how would Powell cope with experienced post threats in Wade and Johnson if he were to defend them “straight up”?
Additionally, Terrence Ross and James Johnson may have found themselves out of the rotation because of the ascension of Norman Powell. If push comes to shove and Casey is forced to throw everything at the wall, it wouldn’t be surprising to see these less-than-perfect solutions see court time.
The only remainder is Cory Joseph. During the season, he has seen spot possessions against burlier wings who have their shot falling against Toronto. Never for many possessions in succession, but Joseph showed that he can hold his own. He won’t start for the Raptors, so to keep their bench unit afloat and in good form, but Joseph routinely finishes games for the Raptors and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Canadian be thrown to the wolves.
Miami’s offense is going to execute depending on what Toronto is willing to give up. They love sending Johnson off mini-zipper cuts that find him catching the ball at the free throw line, turning his hips immediately into a screen-and-roll situation. If a defender is giving up speed, positioning or height there, Johnson’s deadly mid range game will find a way to score. Combating it with too much help will find Toronto’s defense scrambling around the perimeter or sulking after a devastating alley-oop to Whiteside.
Regardless of how it plays out, the wing matchup should be interesting and series defining.
His well documented shooting slump has hit a point where faith is being lost. Lowry, a 38.8% shooter from deep on a career-high 7 attempts a game this season, shot just 16.3% from three-point range during the first round.
His hesitancy has doomed him at points, but even when the Philadelphia native is gunning away from deep with more confidence, mostly in transition, the shot just doesn’t seem to fall. This is not say he was ineffective throughout the first round, as that would be unfair.
Lowry pushed the limits of how good a primary ball-handler can be whilst shooting just a hair over 30% from the field. At times, Lowry’s passing carved up the Pacers, regardless of scheme. Decide against sending a weak-side defender to “bump” Valanciunas’ unguarded roll to the rim? That’s a lob pass. Adjust and leave weak-side shooters open from long range? Lowry spots them there too, with skip passes that make defenders look silly. But when the game slows down, just like it did in the closing moments of Game 7 against Indiana, and you need an effective possession from your lead guard, how effective can a 30% shooter be?
It isn’t like the shot isn’t needed here. Miami is going to drop back deep in the paint with Whiteside, and unless you can pull him out with successful jumpers, he is going to be a terror around the rim. The Raptors already saw how devastating Myles Turner and Ian Mahinmi were, and while Miami doesn’t have another big to pair with Whiteside to replicate that look entirely, rim protection will be immensely important when combating Lowry’s lack of shooting from long range.
At times during the Pacers, Lowry was able to utilize a “snake dribble” when Turner would drop back in pick and roll scenarios. He was able to shed himself free of his primary defender while also having some space from the hesitant rookie and drained some drifting mid-range looks. It won't be enough to entirely supplement the Toronto offense, but if Lowry can sprinkle those in if is shot isn’t falling from three-point range, it should give Whiteside a bit to think about.
That being said, Lowry is sure as hell going to figure out the effectiveness his body will allow, and so will the rest of the Raptors squad. This roster only goes as far as he does and it's tough to envision a situation where this team goes to the Conference Finals without the best version of their best player.
Many other interesting matchups remain, like the battle of the bigs between Valanciunas and Whiteside and whether Valanciunas’ seldom-trusted jumper can bring the shot blocker away from the rim. Will DeRozan’s first round offensive woes be behind him now that George is gone? It seems unlikely, as Miami’s rotation of defensive wing players, such as Deng and Winslow, should provide DeRozan with tough looks, though neither of those players nearly as well-rounded on that end as George. Additionally, Carroll is going to be playing with only one day of rest throughout the entire series. After being ridden quite a bit in the first round, it’ll be telling how well his movement holds up with such little recovery time.
With that being said, those margins can be broken down and their importance shouldn’t be understand, they kind’ve can. The Raptors squeaked by a 7th seed because they are absent of their best player. It’s unclear if Lowry’s shooting difficulties stem entirely from the bursitis he has in his elbow, or if it was exaggerated and George Hill was the difference maker. What will be clear is the team’s ceiling, as imperfections across the board can be mitigated with a great performance from Lowry, but without it that seems inconceivable.