Kicking off the first few games of the NBA season, the defending champion Miami Heat spent a few days in a most unusual place last week – below the .500 mark.
For only the second time since superstars Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took their talents to South Beach, the Heat had a losing record after suffering consecutive losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets.
Admitting they were too comfortable after meeting to address what they called chemistry issues, the back-to-back champs then toppled the Washington Wizards last Sunday. Now, the reinvigorated 2-2 Heat visit Toronto on Tuesday, and the 2-1 Raptors doubt they'll see a complacent Miami squad.
"They're a very tough team today, in the summer time, it doesn't matter when," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. "They're well-coached, they're prepared for every situation. You probably could have surprised them with blitzes and a zone when they first got together, but now, there's no surprising those guys."
The Heat earned a workmanlike 103-93 win over the Wizards with scoring from nine players – led by Wade, Bosh and James, who combined for 69 points. The chemistry appeared much improved as they passed the ball around with precision, and tallied a season-high 32 assists.
"It's just getting back into it, not taking what we have for granted," James said after the game. "We've been together so long, you start to think we can go out and make it happen instead of talking through it. We lacked that the last few games. We got a handle on it today."
Tuesday in Toronto, James could join Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Moses Malone as the only players to score in double figures in 500 consecutive regular-season games.
"He weighs 260 pounds, handles the ball like a point guard, and shoots the ball like a long-range three-point shooter, so he can get you from a lot of angles," Casey said of James. "You just hope to get him off his rhythm, you hope you can make him work to get his shots and his touches."
It's the first of four meetings between the two teams this season – two of which are inside the tough first 30 days of Toronto's schedule. The Heat have won 11 in a row against the Raptors, including the three contests last season.
Still, Raptors forward Rudy Gay gets a wide smile when asked if he enjoys facing James. "I'm competitive, I like to play the best. I'll use my athleticism against him and hope it works."
The Raps won their season-opener over the Boston Celtics last week, before losing to the Atlanta Hawks, then regrouping and beating the Milwaukee Bucks.
"We didn't do what we needed to do in Atlanta, but we did our job in Milwaukee and we want to build off that game," Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. "Guys are being tougher. We're gang-rebounding. Everybody's boxing out, everyone is helping each other on both sides of the ball."
The Raptors have the best overall rebounding percentage per game of any team in the NBA (.581). They have averaged 50 rebounds a game and held opponents to 36, currently the NBA's best differential. Toronto's 150 total rebounds is third overall.
Casey has stressed the importance of the defensive-first mentality, preaching that offence will come out of relentless defence. He wants to see his players get defensive stops, then run the ball swiftly up the floor – rather than walking it – and quickly into the offensive set.
He didn't see that defensive-first mindset in Atlanta but was encouraged by the turnaround in Milwaukee.
"We should be moving the ball whether we're playing Miami or Ryerson University," Casey said. "We've got to do what we need to on each possession. Offensively, move the ball, be strong with it, and make multiple passes. Defensively, close the gaps, and when shot goes up, box out.
"Our fundamentals don't change, no matter who we play."