Raptors in for another tough series against Miami

The Toronto Raptors finally busted their first-round playoff slump, advancing for the first time since 2001. In the process, they won a Game 7 for the first time in franchise history, shed their "choker" label and alleviated years of Raptors fans' pent-up stress.

Roll credits?

Not just yet.

Up next for the Raptors is the Miami Heat. While the Heat may not be the juggernaut they were before LeBron James left, this team was part of the four-way tie for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Add to that a veteran core headlined by Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng, and The North could be in danger of thawing early.

So ask your valet to bring you a pitcher of Bloody Marys. It's time to sober up for the second round.

The new Over-the-Hill Gang

No LeBron? No problem?

In the absence of the King, Pat Riley has assembled a squad of veteran knights to round out the roster. Wade remains a constant presence in Miami and is still dangerous on the court, co-leading the team with 19 points and five assists per game in the post-season.

The other player averaging 19 points for Miami? The perennially underrated Deng. The next mark on DeMarre Carroll's hit list has been one of the Association's most consistent producers over his 14-year career. Lethal if overlooked and a capable distributor when guarded, Deng could be an impact player in the series.

Other members of the South Beach seniors' home include:

  • Joe Johnson: a matchup nightmare and a familiar foe from the 2013 Brooklyn Nets.
  • Amar'e Stoudamire: the bespectacled big man can be effective in limited minutes.
  • Udonis Haslem: a defensive stalwart and member of the Sports Name Hall of Fame.

Carroll and Patrick Patterson will likely share coverage of Johnson and Deng, but this already creates a new problem for the Raptors. While Paul George was the clear focal point of the Indiana Pacers' offence, Miami's depth poses a problem to Toronto's inconsistent defence.

Seven-foot showdown

Chris Bosh's most recent bout with blood clots will likely keep him sidelined for the Heat's playoff push. This leaves Miami centre Hassan Whiteside as the the team's marquee man in the middle.

Jonas Valanciunas is having his best post-season to date statistically and is Toronto's third-leading scorer behind DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The third-year Lithuanian has also shown tremendous grit in the low post, averaging a nearly even split of offensive and defensive rebounds.

Whiteside presents the Bardza with his biggest playoff challenge yet. The former Sichuan Blue Whale (yes, seriously) is averaging a playoff-high 69.8 per cent field goal percentage and 3.4 blocks per game in addition to a double-double in points and rebounds.

As for his performance against the Raptors, take a look at the following Hassan highlight reel:

Strategic shortcomings

Even as they advanced past the Pacers, Dwane Casey and the Raptors took a lot of flak for their offensive strategy.

Or, according to some on Twitter, their lack of it.

Toronto will need to be smart with its shot selection as well. Miami allowed the second-fewest three-pointers in the NBA this season and has an excellent rim protector in Whiteside. While this plays well with the slashing styles of Canadian Cory Joseph and rookie Norman Powell, finding openings in Miami's above-average defence will be critical for Lowry and DeRozan.

Northside vs. Beachside

It's the 416 against the 305.

The Raptors and Heat both boast passionate fan bases headlined by a local rapper. 

Miami native Pitbull issued a call to arms for members of Heat Nation in a promotional video, while Drake has let everyone from his fans to opposing players know his views on the Raptors.

But just like in Highlander, there can be only one. As a series tiebreaker, "Mr. Worldwide" and the "6ix God" will square off in a hypothetical game of hoops.

Deciding factors

Both teams went to Game 7 in their respective first-round series, but the narratives were vastly different. Miami's106-73 thrashing of the Charlotte Hornets saw Dragic erupt for 25 points, six rebounds and four assists. The Slovenian Steve Nash further validated Riley's decision to re-sign him for a $90-million US deal after acquiring him from Phoenix last year.

The psychological burden has been lifted from the dynamic duo of DeRozan and Lowry, but it took seven games worth of grinding and swallowed whistles to do so. The tenacious Lowry will likely be tasked with handling Dragic, but his composure on the offensive end will be his biggest influence on whether Toronto advances. As for DeRozan, a little confidence goes a long way in the NBA playoffs. How he handles the inevitable next obstacle will define how his post-season will be judged and will undoubtedly factor into his upcoming free agency.

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