After barely advancing, these teams have long to-do lists now
POSTED: May 2, 2016 9:57 PM ET
The Toronto Raptors finally did it. For the first time in their 21-year history, they won a best-of-seven playoff series, outlasting the Indiana Pacers in seven games.
It wasn't pretty and it came so close to falling apart in the fourth quarter of Game 7, but coach Dwane Casey got the monkey off his back and the Raptors' depth paid off when their All-Star backcourt shot poorly.
The Raptors can breathe a huge sigh of relief, but not for too long. The Eastern Conference semifinals begin Tuesday and it's already time to focus on the Miami Heat, who came back from a 3-2 series deficit to dispatch the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
The Raptors have home-court advantage and won the season series, 3-1. But they're 0-3 in Game 1s at home over the last three postseasons, the Heat looked like the stronger team in the first round and Dwyane Wade has been here before and came up big in big moments against Charlotte.
The Heat had their ups and downs this season. The Raptors had their ups and downs in the first round. Both had regular-season success against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have long been the clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference. And one of them will get the chance to put the Cavs to the test in the conference finals, should the defending conference champs win their series with the Atlanta Hawks.
They keep the Heat out of the paint. Miami was the most improved offensive team after the All-Star break because they increased their points in the paint from 42.9 to 52.8 per game. They opened up the floor with Luol Deng at the four, stopped playing at a glacial pace and attacked the basket.
The Heat shot well from the outside in Games 1 and 2 against Charlotte, but their perimeter shooting came back down to earth later in the series. But, they absolutely dominated the paint (58-22) in their blowout win in Game 7. Goran Dragic, who has found himself in the Heat's new offense after struggling early in the season, scored almost as many points in the paint (18) in Game 7 as the Hornets did collectively.
Toronto was one of the league's best teams at defending the paint, much improved from last season, with better defenders and a better scheme. The Raptors held Indiana to just 34.0 points in the paint per game in the first round. Bismack Biyombo is a strong rim protector and Jonas Valanciunas is improved in that department, too. Plus, the Raptors have multiple perimeter defenders who can stay in front of their man.
The paint on Miami's end of the floor will likely determine the series. If Toronto gets back in transition and cuts off the middle of the floor, they'll be in good shape defensively.
As important as the paint is, the Raptors will do their best to force the Heat to beat them from the outside. In their first three wins against Charlotte, the Heat shot 47 percent from outside the paint. In their three losses, they shot 31 percent from there. Though they were improved after the All-Star break, the Heat were a bottom-five jump-shooting team in the regular season.
The Raptors also need their All-Star guards to shoot better than they did against Indiana. Toronto was able to survive with Lowry and DeRozan each shooting just shy of 32 percent in the opening round, but the Heat are a tougher opponent than the Pacers.
Miami doesn't have an individual perimeter defender as good as Paul George, who put the clamps on DeRozan for much of the first round. But you can count on coach Erik Spoelstra to call on rookie Justise Winslow early and often to take the assignment. An elbow issue may keep Lowry from finding his shot, but his individual matchup with Dragic will be critical.
1. How much is Lowry's elbow bothering him?
He won't say, and it has been six weeks since he originally injured it, but the numbers speak for themselves. Of course, this is not the first postseason in which Lowry has shot poorly. Shooting poorly isn't the same as playing poorly, and Lowry does offer the Raptors more (defense, playmaking and reckless abandon) than DeRozan does when his shots aren't falling.
2. Can Hassan Whiteside take Jonas Valanciunas out of the offense?
Valanciunas gave the Raptors a lift early in the first round when the Toronto guards were tossing up bricks. And he had some success (12-for-20, 26 points in 39 minutes) against Whiteside in the regular season. Whiteside isn't as good a post defender as he is a raw shot-blocker, so Toronto shouldn't be afraid to go at him one-on-one with Valanciunas. He can also take advantage of Whiteside's defensive aggressiveness by cleaning up on the offensive glass.
3. Who will DeMarre Carroll guard?
Wade is the more dangerous one-on-one threat on the wing, but the Raptors surely remember Joe Johnson punishing DeRozan in the post in a first-round loss to Johnson's Nets in 2014. Rookie Norman Powell could be used to help out defensively in some small ball lineups that match up better with the Heat's floor-spacing units.
Now that the weight of 15 years of playoff failure is off their shoulders, the Raptors could play with a lot less stress than they did against Indiana. DeRozan wasn't anything close to efficient on Sunday, but he was certainly more aggressive and, therefore, more dangerous than he was earlier in the series. Still, the Heat were the better and more consistent team against a stronger opponent in the first round, and Lowry's shooting struggles are impossible to ignore. Heat in 6.
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