TORONTO - With recent history heavily favouring the visiting team, the Raptors (6-8) will welcome the Miami Heat (12-3) back to the Air Canada Centre tonight in the hopes of knocking off the defending champions for the first time in nearly four years.
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Winners of their last eight games, the Heat return to Toronto for the second time in the month of November.
After beginning the season 4-3, allowing 100.9 points on 47 per cent shooting, Miami's resurgent defence has vaulted them back to the top of a weak Eastern Conference. Teams are scoring just 91.9 points, shooting 42 per cent against the Heat during their streak.
"It's significant in the fact that you're playing against the championship team," Dwane Casey said of a match-up with the Heat, who have won their last 12 meetings with the Raptors - including six straight in Toronto - most recently a 104-95 victory on Nov. 5.
"You can measure yourself a little bit, see where you are as a player, see where you are as a team but it's not going to define our season, win or lose."
The Raptors haven't defeated Miami since Jan. 27, 2010, the winter before LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami. Although each of their scoring averages are down from a year ago, all three of the Heat's all-stars are shooting above 50 per cent this season.
Toronto nearly clawed back from a 15-point deficit in the final three minutes of Tuesday's contest at home to the struggling Nets. Instead, a missed Amir Johnson three-point attempt at the buzzer sealed the team's disappointing 102-100 loss.
"We take two steps forward and we take a half a step back," Casey said, his team allowing Brooklyn to shoot 51 per cent Tuesday. "That's the mark of a young team, trying to find themselves. But you can say that about a lot of teams in the league."
"It's a trend in the NBA, period," he continued. "There's probably three-to-four teams that can say, this is who we are and [are] playing that way. There's a lot of teams, for whatever reason and specifically in the Eastern Conference, that are trying to find who they are and what they want to be."
One month into the season, the Heat are one of only two Eastern Conference teams with a record above .500 and one of four teams - including the Raptors - with a positive point differential.
"I don't think anybody really saw it coming," Chris Bosh said of the weak conference. "A lot of teams have struggled early. It's down a little bit but it's a long season, I'm sure a lot of teams will turn their fate around and start playing better basketball."
Bosh is averaging 19.6 points in seven career games against the Raptors, his former team. He didn't play in the first meeting this season following the birth of his daughter.
Trends and Tidbits
DeMar DeRozan has led the Raptors in scoring in four of the last five games. Averaging 28.6 points in those contests, the Raptors' guard leads in the NBA in scoring since Nov. 5. DeRozan is shooting 52 per cent from the field and 13-of-25 beyond the arch over that stretch. He has hit three or more treys in three of the last five games, a feat he has accomplished six times in the last 17 contests - dating back to last season - after doing so just twice in the first 311 games of his career.
Kyle Lowry has led the Raptors in assists in each of the last six contests. He has recorded 49 assists with just 10 turnovers during that stretch.
The Raptors can finish with seven wins in October/November for the first time since 2009 with a victory on Friday.
What to Watch For
Defending home court
With perhaps their most complete efforts coming on the road - in Memphis and Philadelphia - the Raptors have struggled to maintain their focus on home court this season. They have an identical record at home (3-4) as they do away from Toronto and they have lost three of their last four at the ACC.
"Our focus is not where it needs to be at home," Casey admitted after practice on Thursday. "It's hard to say [why]. I think it's easy and kind of human nature to relax at home a little bit, thinking home is going to take care of you but the main thing is, you need to take care of home."
Taking care of the ball
The Raptors trailed by just four points after three quarters in the previous meeting with Miami before nine fourth-quarter turnovers - they had six in the first 36 minutes - ignited the Heat, who began to pull away.
"We didn't take care of the ball," Casey said of that game. "They fuel their offence off of turnovers and that was our Achilles heel against this team the last time we played them."
"You should be on high alert the entire time," he continued. "I think teams get fired up to play them, you lose a little focus whether they turn it up or not. I wouldn't say they take possessions off but they know when to turn it on and off and that's a characteristic of a good team. They know what possessions are important and what possessions aren't important and believe me, they're dialled in when they need to be dialled in."
Who to Watch For
Immediately after Tuesday's loss to Brooklyn, a game in which he shot 3-of-12 and deferred to Johnson on the deciding possession, Gay went up to the team's practice facility where he spent the evening shooting.
"The only thing I could do after that game was just go in and shoot some jump shots, get it off my head and also work on my game," said Gay, who is averaging just 14.7 points on 34 per cent shooting in his last three games.
Although the Raptors' forward generally gets up for match-ups opposite top tiered wing players and played well against James and the Heat last season, he struggled in defeat earlier this month. Gay was just 3-for-10, scoring 13 points and registered four turnovers - he leads the team with 48 total - in the Nov. 5 loss to Miami.
"I've never questioned Rudy's commitment, not at all," Casey said. "Is he shooting the ball the way he wants to? No. But that's what he has to do, is work at that pace. I've mentioned it to him, you've got to shoot at that fourth-quarter tempo when you work on your game at night time. You've got to shoot it like it's the game winning shot."
James has been dominant in every facet of the game during Miami's winning streak. Over the last eight games, the four-time MVP is averaging 27.6 points, connecting on 61 per cent of his field goals.
Guarded primarily by Gay, James tallied 35 points, eight rebounds and eight assists against the Raptors earlier in November.
"We know what LeBron likes to do," Johnson said. "The focal point is going to be on him. We might throw different looks at him, double teams."
Raptors forward Quincy Acy will be a game-time decision with a sprained right ankle that has kept him out of the last three contests.