Heat Check: Miami Now Stands Just Two Games Away From Goliath
Analysis Through Four Games:
The Eastern Conference semifinal playoff battle between the Miami Heat and the Toronto Raptors has been nothing short of intense and nerve wrecking. Each game has been decided by single digits, with three out of four needing an additional five minutes of action to determine the victor. With the series tied at two-apiece, there’s no reason to think that this won’t go seven games. The two squads are just about even in every aspect, but playing Cleveland in the next round is more than just a daunting task for both.
The Miami Heat could have easily reserved a spot to play against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals after stealing game one on the road in Toronto, a game in which they almost blew because of an incredible half-court shot by Kyle Lowry. In Game Two, Miami was up 77-70 midway through the fourth quarter, but proceeded to blow that lead and ultimately lose the game by four points in overtime. Stealing Game Two would have put the series to rest. Heading down to Miami with an 0-2 deficit would have been nearly insurmountable for the Raptors.
Game Three ended up being the Dwyane Wade (38 points / 8 rebounds) vs. Kyle Lowry (33 points) show. Each player took over the game for their respective team, but Lowry got a larger boost from his teammates and stole back home court advantage.
Game Four was a must win for the Heat. They couldn’t go down 3-1 heading back to Toronto, which is why I knew Dwyane Wade would absolutely take over the game. That’s exactly what he did, and Miami pulled out yet another overtime thriller.
So the question is, how did they lose the home court advantage they stole in Game One and do they have enough left in the tank to seize control and win the series?
Three Key Takeaways From This Series:
For starters, the Heat needs to figure out a way to regain the shooting touch they displayed against Charlotte, plain and simple. In the first round series against Charlotte, Miami’s offense was scorching hot in the first two games. Since then, they have averaged a robust 92.7 points per game. The Los Angeles Lakers averaged 97.3 points per game this season, which was last, I repeat last, in the league.
The way Miami goes about its offense has simply been ugly and difficult to watch. They struggle to run set plays and constantly find themselves taking contested looks late in the shot clock. There are way too many isolations run for Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson.
Here’s just an example of a completely wasted possession by Miami.
For the first 14 seconds of the shot clock, Wade dribbled around the court, attempting to find his own shot. This was clearly set up to be a Wade isolation. He then passed the ball to an open Dragic, who ended up getting fouled. The Heat then inbounded the ball back to Wade, who passed it to Johnson. Johnson passed it to Deng, who attempted to make a move toward the hoop. The defender cut him off, so Deng swung the ball back out to Wade with 4 seconds left on the shot clock. Wade proceeded to travel, which resulted in a turnover.
Possessions cannot afford to be wasted, especially in the postseason. The person who had ball throughout this entire play was simply watched by the other four teammates. Basketball is about teamwork which is created through unselfishness and willingness to create for others. Neither of these attributes are seen in this play nor in general regarding Miami’s stagnant offense.
These offensive struggles all start with Coach Spoelstra. He needs to have the team run more set plays and less isolation in order to make the opposing defense work harder. Spoelstra still has not figured out how to consistently get Whiteside involved in the offense, which brings me to my next point.
The Battle of the Centers:
What was once seen as the biggest X-factor in the series is now nothing but an afterthought. Many people, including myself, thought that whoever won the battle at center between Hassan Whiteside and Jonas Valančiūnas would ultimately win the series for their respective team. However, during Game Three, both Whiteside and Valančiūnas got injured. Whiteside reinjured his knee and did not play in Game Four, while Valančiūnas has been ruled out for the entire series with an ankle sprain.
This changes the dynamic of the series. Both centers played an extremely important role for their team thus far in the series, with abilities that cannot be matched by anyone else on the roster. Even though Whiteside has not been a major part of the offense for quite some time, his defense is undeniably dominant and his rebounding is essential for Miami’s small-ball attack.
On the other hand, Valančiūnas is one of the best scoring big men in the Association. He consistently takes the scoring burden off of Toronto’s All-Star guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. He is also an elite rebounder with a great motor and basketball instincts.
Even though both teams’ guards have been the most important factor in the series thus far, I expect that to only continue to grow. Wade realized in Game Four that the key to success was attacking the basket because Toronto went small without Valančiūnas. Wade had numerous key baskets by exploiting this weakness in Toronto’s defense, which is what I expect DeMar DeRozan to realize next game.
DeRozan loves to attack the basket, but there are some games in which he mostly settles for jump-shots. With Whiteside anchoring the D, it’s reasonable to understand why DeRozan wouldn’t want to attack the hoop as much. Fortunately for the Raptors, Whiteside is not manning the middle for Miami and won’t be for the near future. Expect DeRozan to notice this weakness and make the proper adjustments for Game Five and the rest of the series.
Who Can Help:
Both teams really need their starting big men at such a pivotal point in the season, but injuries have thrown a monkey-wrench into the franchises’ plans. Now each team desperately needs another player to step up, which is where I give the Heat this advantage simply based off of experience.
Miami has a few veterans that can take on a larger role. Amar’e Stoudemire and Udonis Haslem have both played massive roles for championship contending teams in the past. They are not afraid playing in the big moment, and even though both are shells of what they once were, they each still have talent and can positively impact their team.
Putting even a slight offensive burden on Stoudemire or Haslem is unfair to ask for, but they will bring defensive intensity and hustle, which is what Miami really needs heading into Game Five.
Defense Wins Championships:
Miami’s defense is the only thing keeping them afloat right now. With its major offensive struggles, the Heat would have been swept out of this series if it weren’t for their stellar defense. Unfortunately, this is now in jeopardy after the loss of their defensive anchor (Whiteside) for a potentially-extended period of time.
The Heat defense has allowed 91.9 points per game so far this postseason, which ranks only behind the San Antonio Spurs (90.1). Even with Whiteside out for however long it takes for his knee to recover, Miami still has numerous versatile defenders who can guard 3-4 positions on the court. This allows them to constantly switch on pick-and-rolls, which is something Toronto loves to take advantage of with its guard duo.
Miami’s defense has come up clutch multiple times throughout the regular season, which has continued seamlessly throughout the postseason. The two games they won against Toronto were because of stellar defense, while the two games they lost were because their defense simply couldn’t hold up their dreadful offense.
Watch these two plays at the very beginning of overtime in Game Four.
Joe Johnson was switched onto Toronto guard, Cory Joseph, after a screen. Johnson knows that Joseph is quicker than him, so he gave him a step which would either force Joseph to take a contested jumper or drive at him. Joseph chose the latter and decided to drive directly at Johnson. Johnson proceeded to block his shot which ultimately resulted in a turnover.
The next possession was an extremely similar situation.
This time, DeMar DeRozan decided to attack the basket while being guarded by Johnson. He ended up getting by the former Atlanta Hawk & Brooklyn Net, but Johnson had just enough time to catch up and block his shot.
These are two consecutive possessions in overtime of a must-win game in the playoffs. Johnson is mostly known for his stellar offense, but he’s always had a knack for making big plays in the biggest moments, which is clearly displayed in this scenario.
There’s no chance anyone would have ever predicted three overtimes in the first four games of this series. The Heat has outscored the Raptors by five total points (379-374) throughout the first four contests. There really could not be a matchup between two more even teams. Yes, Toronto won eight more games in the regular season, but postseason basketball is different in its entirety. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another overtime game or two before the series is said and done, because that’s truly how well-matched these two teams are. Miami’s veterans should be able to lead their team to two wins over the next three games, but Toronto’s home court gives them the true and desired advantage.