History on Raptors' side as Miami tries to win second straight Game 7
It may feel like the Heat are the favorite heading into Sunday's Game 7, but Toronto actually has history on its side.
TORONTO -- "Game 7s are fun," Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Saturday. He said this less than 24 hours before the Raptors will face the Miami Heat in the game that will either end their season or send them to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Casey prefers to focus on the second potential outcome.
"I tell our guys, these are the games that you work all summer for, you prepare your body, you prepare your mind," Casey said. "You get through the regular season, you've won 56 games, you've earned the right to have Game 7 on your home court. Let's go out and play basketball and have fun competing. There should be nothing else hanging over your head. There's no pressure except just going out and competing against the Miami Heat."
Pressure has been a constant concern for Toronto in the playoffs. In the first round, it was heavily favored against the Indiana Pacers, but needed seven games, including a miraculous comeback, to put them away. The Raptors are in the second round now for the first time since 2001, and on Friday in Miami they blew a perfectly good chance to avoid this win-or-go-home scenario.
Due to the leadership of three-time champion Dwyane Wade and Toronto's tendency to make things difficult, some might see the Heat as the favorites. History, though, is on the Raptors' side. Miami came back from a 3-2 deficit in the first round against the Charlotte Hornets, but no team has ever done that twice in the same postseason. In the NBA's 123 Game 7s, the home team has won 99 times. Casey said that the Air Canada Centre crowd will give Toronto a boost, rather than exacerbating any nerves.
"In the first series I thought we were a little tight going into Game 7 because of the history and the number of years that we hadn't advanced out of the first round," Casey said. "But I don't sense that in this round. I sense a sense of understanding the moment. I think that this Game 7 will be different than the last Game 7. I think our guys understand and going through the Indiana series helped them tremendously as far as getting through that. Now it's about just playing basketball, getting it done on the court."
Since Game 1 on May 3, this matchup has completely changed. Both starting centers -- Hassan Whiteside and Jonas Valanciunas -- are out for the series. Starting forwards Luol Deng and DeMarre Carroll are playing through wrist injuries. In Game 6, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put rookie Justise Winslow, a 6-foot-7 small forward, in the starting lineup at center.
Miami has outscored the Raptors 117-89 this series with no big men on the court. Casey knows that the smallball will continue, and he needs his team to do better when it comes to getting back in transition, keeping the Heat's guards out of the paint and hitting the glass. He thinks that Toronto's adaptability throughout the regular season -- Valanciunas missed 22 games, Carroll missed 56 -- will serve the team well now.
"We went in preparing to go against one of the best shot-blockers in the game," Casey said. "And now he's out. And we were going to go inside more to Valanciunas, now he's out. Now it's more like a 6-7, 6-5 and under league. It has changed tremendously. I think it's a fun series for our players to get adjusted to. It's basketball, it's not rocket science."
There's that word again: fun. You wouldn't hear San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich say anything like that -- on Tuesday, he said that there is only relief, not joy after wins in May. Both Casey and Spoelstra, however, have insisted that this low-scoring Eastern Conference tug of war has been everything that the playoffs are about.
"Last year at this time we were all on vacation," Spoelstra said Friday. "So often in this business, people tend to want and search for the easy route. Usually there's not an easy way in a seven game series, certainly not [with] a second and third seed going against each other. This is the path. You have to embrace competition and attack it and find different ways to try and win. Now we pushed it to a game seven which is a great opportunity for competitors."
The reality is that neither team has been at its best for a while, and neither will be expected to give the Cleveland Cavaliers much of a scare when this is over. The Raptors have gotten this far with their All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan struggling for the vast majority of the postseason. Lowry and DeRozan stepped up the last two games, though, and they still managed to find a way to lose one of them.
If Toronto plays to its talent level and its regular-season personality, it should be able to beat the banged-up Heat at home. That means that Lowry and DeRozan need something close to equal amounts of confidence and efficiency, and the Raptors' reserves need to dominate like they did for most of the year. Casey, sounding as positive as possible, acknowledged that Sunday is a time for someone like Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson or Terrence Ross to become a playoff hero.
"We need somebody ... other than DeMar or Kyle to step up and have a career night," Casey said. "Whether it's on the defensive end or offensive end. And that's what's so fun about a series like this: There's always going to be opportunities for guys to step up and have big nights. And that's what you kind of need to get through a Game 7."
That sounds so simple, doesn't it? If only Toronto didn't have this nasty habit of making things complicated.
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