On Sunday, the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs came to an end. In the afternoon, Miami destroyed Charlotte in game seven. Later in the day, Toronto finally got over the playoff curse that has haunted the franchise since 2001 by defeating Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. Both the Charlotte/Miami series and the Toronto/Indiana series were extremely close, and could have gone either way. Expect much of the same drama in round two as the Heat and Raptors square off on Tuesday night.
It is almost a mirror matchup between these two teams at many positions. Strong and crafty point guards in Dragic and Lowry who can both attack the rim. Scoring wings, who don’t possess much in terms of shooting but can both light in up for 30 any given night in Wade and DeRozan. Centers who are dominant on the glass and who won’t back down from each other in Valanciunas and Whiteside. The Raptors are the odds on favourite to win the series, and rightly so as the second seed with home court advantage, but many Miami fans would beg to differ.
During their first round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors two All-Stars Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan were abysmal. DeRozan led the team in scoring, but shot only 31% from the field. Never much of a threat from behind the arc, the Raptors shooting guard chucked up 18 treys in the series, only connecting on three of them. Although he can be given significant credit for the game seven victory, due to a flurry of scoring spurts in first and third quarter where he put the team on his back, the rest of the game he was silent. In fact it took him 32 shots to achieve his game-high 30 point outing.
Lowry had similar struggles facing George Hill, an excellent defender in his own right. His best outing was in game three when the Philly native put up 21 points, but was still held to a chilly 38% shooting on the night. As much as DeRozan attempted to shoot himself out of his slump, Lowry did the same, and with his 20 total turnovers over the seven game span, Toronto will need him to step up. The Raptors are a team with less 3-point shooters than one would hope for, and even though Norman Powell has been a revelation from behind the arc, they still rely heavily on Lowry to knock down long-range jumpers in order to keep the defence honest. He did no such thing in the first round matchup as he shot only 16% from behind the arc.
The Raptors are going to need DeRozan and Lowry to step up against the Heat and play the kind of basketball they are capable of, and I expect them to. Paul George and George Hill are a class above Dragic and Wade on the defensive end, and both of Toronto’s All-Stars should improve significantly against these new matchups. Miami still boasts Luol Deng and Justice Winslow on the wing as well as Hassan Whiteside to patrol the paint, but if Lowry can find his shooting stroke and if Toronto, a team that gets to the line as well as anyone, can put Whiteside in foul trouble, look to see the Raptors back-court bounce back.
Toronto got amazing productivity out of their bench and role players, particularly Valanciunas, Powell and Joseph, and the Canadian team will need similar performances if they are going to move past the second round for the first time ever.
On the other side of the ticket, Miami is an intriguing team. They are filled with veterans on the wrong side of 30 who can still give magical performances when the time is needed, and unproven youngsters who have not shied away from the limelight. Future Hall of Famer Dwayne Wade was mesmerizing in games five and six against Charlotte, where the 34 year old had a combined 48 points, 8 assists, 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 3 blocked shots and even connected on both of his attempts from behind the arc. It was vintage Wade, slashing through the defence, finding open teammates, stepping back for mid-range jumpers and attacking out of the post.
Goran Dragic had a similarly impressive game seven, where the Slovenian played to the tune of 25 points, 4 assists, 6 rebounds and even a blocked shot shooting nearly 65% from the floor. He torched the Charlotte defence, getting to the rim at will, stepping back for jumpers and seemingly connecting with every floater he threw up.
Miami still has Joe Johnson and Luol Deng who can bring a big game on any given night, and with rumors of Chris Bosh pressuring medical staff to allow him to come back early, this could be an upset in the making.
The Miami youngsters have shown no quit either, as Justice Winslow has been extremely disruptive on the defensive end and Josh Richardson has come out of nowhere with great energy and production off of the bench. It is Whiteside who has been the most impressive however. At 26 he isn’t exactly young, but he is only a sophomore and this is his first taste of the playoffs. The Heat center was a load on the block, especially on the defensive end where he sent back shot after shot and gobbled up rebounds.
In the most intriguing matchup of the series, Whiteside will go head-to-head with Jonas Valanciunas. A battle of giants, these two men won’t back down from each other and both had monster first rounds. While Hassan Whitside is a much more accomplished defender and rebounder than Mahinmi, Valanciunas is a completely different animal when compared with Al Jefferson. The big Lithuanian is dominant on the glass and thrives on contact, and the American will certainly bring it.
This is probably the closest playoff matchup to date, with both teams being so evenly matched it is almost impossible to pick a winner. Being a Toronto fan I’m biased, and am choosing the Raptors in seven based solely off of that bias. In reality, this series will come down to who wants it more.