Star-Studded Backcourts Will Decide Raptors-Heat Series

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 3, 2016

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 5:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball against Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on Jan. 5, 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: Copyright NBAE 2014 (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

When the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors tip off their 2016 second-round series Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre, their starting guards can look across the floor and see mirror images of themselves.

The reflection is crystal clear at the shooting guard spots, where Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan have booked multiple NBA All-Star Game appearances despite neither having a reliable three-ball in his arsenal. They're crafty isolation scorers—Wade's battling Father Time with skill and DeRozan is exploiting his youth with explosive athleticism—like Wade was regularly during his younger days.

"He reminds me of me," Wade said of DeRozan, per Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald. "I love the way he mixes in his shot fakes, and his athletic ability, his post game, his mid-range, that's about the same things I tried to do about the same time when he did it."

At point guard, Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry—once teammates with the Houston Rockets—share more of a fun-house-mirror resemblance. They don't play the same style, but they do have the same responsibility of setting an aggressive tone for their team.

Collectively, the four control their respective offenses and almost certainly the direction of this series. That's why we're putting each pair under the microscope and seeing which side this matchup favors.

 

Who's Hotter?

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 1:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors smiles with teammate DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors after they defeated the Indiana Pacers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 1
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

No one had a more fulfilling or important first-round victory than Toronto's All-Star twosome. After being upset in the opening round of back-to-back postseasons, the Raptors did just enough to fend off the feisty seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers.

Nothing about the win was pretty. The Raptors were outscored in the series. Their offense stalled on multiple occasions—a direct result of the dreadful shooting percentages put forth by their leaders: 31.9 for DeRozan and 31.6 for Lowry.

But simply surviving that series should provide a massive lift to the Raptors' psyche.

"It means a lot," Lowry said, per ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo. "It means the elephant in the room is gone, the monkey is off our back."

It also means a better, deeper team awaits Toronto. And even though Dragic had an up-and-down series against the Charlotte Hornets before his 25-point outburst in Game 7, the Heat backcourt still boasts the superior 2016 postseason resume.

Wade flashed his takeover ability—he willed Miami to a must-win Game 6 road victory—between prolonged stretches of masterful management. He led both vocally and by example, keeping his supporting cast involved enough to make the Heat's whole better than the sum of its parts.

Dragic's play was spotty at times, and he had several sideline stints where head coach Erik Spoelstra opted to use the more athletic, defensive-minded Josh Richardson at the point. But the Dragon's hyper-aggressive performance Sunday highlighted how critical he can be to an offense that has emphasized pace and transition opportunities since losing Chris Bosh at the All-Star break.

"We love when he is aggressive," Wade said of Dragic. "No one is harder on Goran than Goran. He wants to be so great all the time, and I think he puts a lot of pressure on himself. A game like tonight, he just saw it and was in that mindset that he was just going to keep going and going."

Miami's guards paved a path to the second round, while Toronto's sort of stumbled into one. Both tickets still secured an Eastern Conference semifinal spot, but the Heat's generated more confidence for the journey ahead.

Advantage: Miami, though it did have the easier defensive matchup in Round 1

 

Who Has the Experience Edge?

MIAMI, FL - MAY 01:  Head coach Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat look on during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets at American Airlines Arena on May 1, 2016 in Miami
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Between the name on the front of their jerseys, a collection of recognizable veterans and the three championship banners raised since 2006, Miami seems like a perennial contender for the crown. But the Heat aren't quite as proven as they appear. 

The organization may qualify as a contender, but this particular core doesn't. Not including Bosh, only Wade and Udonis Haslem remain from those title-winning teams. The current rotation includes a big chunk of playoff neophytes—namely, Hassan Whiteside and rookies Richardson and Justise Winslow—plus a handful of veterans who've yet to experience the NBA Finals.

This is only the second career playoff appearance for Dragic and first as a starter. Lowry has played eight more postseason games than Dragic, and DeRozan has played over 200 playoff minutes more.

But add Wade to the equation and the balance shifts so heavily to Miami's side that it could break the scale.

Consider this: The Raptors, as a franchise, just secured their second-ever playoff series win and have never advanced beyond this round. Wade just completed his 22nd postseason series victory and has three championship rings in his jewelry collection.

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 29: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat admires his ring during the ceremony before the game against the Chicago Bulls on October 29, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

"It's the experience of competition, he understands," Spoelstra said of Wade. "Seven-game series are hard. Dwyane feels most alive when the competition is at its highest."

Wade has been preparing for playoff moments all season. He has kept constant pressure on his teammates, noting time and again that this group hadn't made a postseason run together, and he wasn't sure what would happen when it did.

That type of leadership is invaluable at this time of year, particularly when championship hardware backs up Wade's words. Not to mention, the comfort level he shows in the clutch is the exact opposite of the deer-in-headlights look often sported by the Raptors in the opening round.

Advantage: Miami, but really, it's Advantage: Wade

 

Who Matches Up Better?

Joe Skipper/Associated Press

In the regular season, the Raptors were clearly the better team. They won more games (56-48) and the season series (3-1). Their efficiency ratings positioned them closer to the NBA's elite (plus-4.3 points per 100 possessions, sixth overall; plus-2.6, 10th for Miami).

During their head-to-head battles, the Heat managed to turn Lowry into a volume scorer (16.8 points on 15.5 shots per game). But Miami saw the same thing happen to Dragic (11.0 on 12.0) and never found an answer for DeRozan's explosive scoring ability.

"Lowry has been up and down in the (first round), and DeRozan a little bit, too," Winslow said Sunday. "But throughout the whole regular season and especially against us, they did a great job attacking and getting to the foul line."

DeRozan had an All-Star season and still managed to up the ante against Miami. During those four matchups, he averaged 29.3 points (up from 23.5 in the regular season) and 10 free-throw attempts (up from 8.4).

If Lowry can rediscover his shooting stroke—he's struggled to find his range since injuring his elbow in late March—he can help stretch out the defense and open attack lanes for DeRozan. As the Heat know from firsthand experience, it's hard to get slashers going when outside shots aren't falling.

Both clubs are equipped to throw different looks at the guards. Digging into the rotation could add both quick, pesky stoppers (Richardson for Miami, Cory Joseph for Toronto) and longer, athletic ones (Winslow and Luol Deng for the Heat, Terrence Ross and DeMarre Carroll for the Raptors) to the defensive puzzle.

But based on what the regular season showed, Miami's defense will have the toughest time in this matchup. 

Advantage: Toronto, assuming the first-round struggles don't carry over

 

Who Looks Better in the Crystal Ball?

Joe Skipper/Associated Press

This is one of the second round's toughest matchups to peg, and the backcourt battle is no different.

The Raptors' guards had the better year, but the Heat's had a more impressive seven games to start the postseason.

Lowry and DeRozan have a more complementary play style. Dragic works best when he's in full-on attack mode, while Wade sometimes seems most comfortable in a controlled half-court setting.

But recent trends matter, and that's an advantage for Miami. Ditto for experience, which also favors South Beach's finest.

It's hard to bet against Wade's late-game dominance, especially if the aggressive Dragic shows up for the second round. It wouldn't be a shock if Toronto's guards produce more in volume, but Miami's backcourt can still control this battle in both efficiency and impact.

Advantage: Miami, based on both what we've seen recently and Wade's playoff resume

 

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise cited. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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