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  1. Photo Credit: Vaughn Ridley The Miami HEAT face the Toronto Raptors Sunday afternoon at Air Canada Centre in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The HEAT defeated the Raptors 103-91 in Game 6 to even the series at three games apiece. Tip-off is set for 3:30 PM and television coverage is on ABC, although you can log on to HEAT.com for an exclusive one-hour pre-game show. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket. 1: How did the move to start Justise Winslow at center change the complexion of the series? Couper Moorhead: The HEAT had already started playing much smaller, other than with Josh McRoberts, in the past couple games since Hassan Whiteside went down with a knee injury so the change to the starting lineup felt like a natural progression of that. But with Toronto seemingly sticking with their starting frontcourt of Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo, we now have two very distinct styles going to battle with one another – with Miami very clearly trying to take advantage of its speed, as we saw Goran Dragic able to do in Game 6. The move worked to Miami’s advantage, but Dwane Casey didn’t seem to think his team’s struggles were due to the lineup so much as Toronto’s difficulty containing the ball in one-on-one situations – even though those situations were made a little more stressful with more spacing on the floor for the HEAT. While the small lineup was effective, we can’t expect it to be a silver bullet in the way that Golden State starting Andre Iguodala during last year’s NBA Finals seemed to be. Miami still has to do a lot of dirty work on the boards, where they are outsized, and they’ll have to work around Biyombo laying off Justise Winslow’s shooting on the perimeter. It’s all about who can get to who at this point. Joe Beguiristain: The smaller lineup did a lot of things on both ends. First off, Miami was able to get out in transition a bit more with the faster unit on the floor. Of course, that all started with the team’s improved defense in Game 6. Being able to switch on every defensive assignment didn’t give Toronto that many chances at a mismatch. Additionally, the HEAT did a nice job of gang-rebounding against a bigger Raptors squad. Case in point: Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson combined for 18 of Miami’s 41 rebounds on the night. Still, none of this would have been possible had it not been for the stellar play of Justise Winslow. Winslow fought hard on both ends and boxed-out Bismack Biyombo quite well for a majority of the contest. The rookie also mixed things up offensively with a few outside jumpers and finishes inside for 12 points in all on 4-of-9 shooting. 2: With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan playing their best ball of the series at the same time, what can Miami do to slow them down in Game 7? Couper: They have to be able to contain the ball one-on-one. Not just because there is a distinct lack of rim protection on the floor for Miami these days, but because with all the switching they are doing on the perimeter the HEAT are trusting their individual defenders to keep the ball in front. There’s only so much you can do if DeRozan is going to hit his pull-up mid-range jumpers or if Lowry is going to hit step-back threes, but you have to affect them on their forays into the paint. It’s one thing to get beat by exceedingly tough shots. It’s another thing entirely to get beat by layups. Joe: It sounds simple, but you have to keep them out of the paint as much as possible. While DeMar DeRozan hit some in-rhythm mid-range jumpers on Friday night, he was held scoreless in the fourth quarter. Again, being able to switch defensively should make the 26-year-old a bit more uncomfortable. With Lowry, you have to watch out for the three-ball. Although he’s shooting just 33.3 percent from deep in this series, he still is a threat. That said, Richardson defended the veteran point guard very well in Game 6 and swatted his shot twice in the fourth quarter. Hopefully the young man out of Tennessee can keep it up. 3: How do you win a Game 7 on the road? Couper: You weather the storm. Yes, Miami needs to fight for all the details on the floor while executing their schemes to the fullest, but when you’re on the road in a game like this you know the home team is going to make a run. So, you have to absorb it and hang around long enough to make your own run. Miami was able to do this, in a sense, in Game 5 – they just took too big of a punch at the beginning of the game. Home teams generally win these games for a reason and road teams never win in a blowout, but as long as Miami can keep things close enough for long enough by making winning plays, they’ll give themselves a chance to compete at the end. Joe: You win a Game 7 on the road by sticking to your principles. You already know that Toronto will feed off the energy from its home crowd in the early going, so a quick start from Miami will be important. As I’ve stated numerous times before, it all begins on the defensive end. When the HEAT are defending at the level they are capable of, there aren't many teams that can defeat them. With it being a do-or-die situation, I expect Miami to come out with a laser-sharp focus on Sunday afternoon. Luckily, the team was in this same predicament in the last round, down 3-2 to the Charlotte Hornets. Even though the HEAT don’t have home court this time and thus no Game 7 at home, they still understand what it takes to come away victorious when their backs are against the wall. Highlights: Game 6 Game Notes: The HEAT are aiming to become the first team in NBA history to surmount a 3-2 series deficit twice in the same postseason. Erik Spoelstra is 10-4 in elimination games as a head coach. Dwyane Wade leads Miami in points (25.2) and assists (3.7) per game in the ECSF. Kyle Lowry leads Toronto in points (21.5), assists (5.3) and steals (2.3) per contest in the series against the HEAT.
  2. Photo Credit: Ron Turenne The Miami HEAT fell to the Toronto Raptors 116-89 Sunday afternoon at Air Canada Centre in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Six players scored in double-figures for the HEAT. With the win, Toronto takes the series 4-3. Click here for the full recap on HEAT.com.
  3. By Dylan Barmmer Few people expected this from Norris Cole. When the HEAT capped their franchise record-setting and NBA-leading 2012-13 regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games, including 27 straight at one point, Cole's professionalism, passion and play backing up Mario Chalmers at the point turned heads and opened eyes among HEAT fans while earning accolades from his coaches. And with Chalmers slowed by an ankle injury during the season's final month, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Cole did produce a few strong stat lines in spot starter duty. The highlight came in a 96-95 HEAT win at Cleveland on April 15, when the former Cleveland State star and Dayton, Ohio native nearly notched a triple-double with season-highs of 16 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists to lead his injury-depleted team to their 65th win. In 4 total starts on the season, Cole averaged a solid 13.0 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Still, it was his seemingly endless energy, determined defense and infectious passion that served as the 24-year-old Cole's calling cards in his second NBA season, not his offensive acumen. Given a full training camp to work with for the first time, and often sharing a backcourt with the epitome of a professional and pure scorer in reserve shooting guard Ray Allen, Cole improved his statistics in nearly every offensive category. But Cole's 5.6 points a game, 42.1-percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent from 3-point range over 80 games suggested more of a player still rounding out his offensive form than it did a dead-eyed and deadly offensive assassin. Even in that signature game at Cleveland, Cole's biggest play came on defense, when he shadowed, suffocated and then stuffed lightning-quick guard Kyrie Irving on the Cavaliers' final possession. The brilliant block-and-steal play sealed that narrow 96-95 win and humbled a fellow second-year standout who earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors by averaging 18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game in the 2011-12 season. But as their brilliant regular season gave way to the 2013 NBA Playoffs, and the HEAT kicked off their NBA Championship title defense run in the postseason, Cole has shot out of the gate guns blazing, averaging 8.8 points while shooting a sizzling 60.4 percent from the field and a remarkable 68.8 percent from behind the 3-point line (drilling 11 of 16 attempts from long-range) over the HEAT's first 9 playoff games. Cole is the fifth-leading scorer for the HEAT so far in the playoffs, and his postseason point production has come coupled with averages of 2.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.8 steals – while averaging 22.1 minutes off the HEAT bench. In short, Cole's all-around play is a big reason for the HEAT's 8-1 record in 9 postseason games. And his scoring has been especially impactful. Cole's offensive improvement and ultra-efficiency was especially notable and valuable in the HEAT's Eastern Conference Semifinals series win over the gritty, grinding Chicago Bulls. Cole scored 7 or more points in 4 of the 5 games in that series, including a playoff-career-high 18 points in back-to-back HEAT wins in Games 2 and 3. Cole hit 20 of 29 shots from the field in that series, including a near-perfect 9 of 11 from long-range (he was a flawless 8-for-8 through the first 3 games), and his offensive output helped neutralize the production of Bulls point guard Nate Robinson, who exploded for a game-high 27 points in the Bulls' 93-86 Game 1 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena and scored at least 17 points in 3 of the series' 5 games. The big showings in Games 2 and 3 were also pivotal in shaping the series' outcome, as the Bulls surprisingly grabbed control of the narrative with that Game 1 win, and Dwyane Wade was battling right knee soreness that hampered his overall explosiveness and usual offensive output. Cole led the HEAT with 9 3-point hits in the series, outpacing primary long-range snipers Shane Battier (8) and Ray Allen (4). The fact that he managed to do that on just 11 attempts from behind the arc is even more noteworthy. Of course, Cole also played his customary lock-down defense for much of the series, and helped hold the previously hot Robinson scoreless on 0-for-12 shooting in an 88-65 win in Game 4. But when the dust cleared on the HEAT's 5-game series win, it was Cole's fearless attacking and dead-eye shooting that stood out – and got NBA observers everywhere talking about the tough-minded guard's evolving overall game. It's hard to be much more efficient than the 69 percent from the field and eye-popping 81.8 percent from long-range that Cole shot in that series, particularly against a physical, defense-minded opponent. And especially while coming off the bench. In other words, in a "second season" that traditionally translates to more defense and less offense, the HEAT's second-year spark plug of a point guard has defied convention, morphing from defensive-minded stopper to explosive and sweet-shooting scorer seemingly overnight. Of course, the reality is that nothing happens overnight. Especially when it comes to the demanding, grinding, heavy-lifting life of a professional athlete. No, the truth is Norris Cole has worked hard to improve all areas of his game in his second NBA season. Very, very, very hard. And the results are starting to make the HEAT even harder and harder to beat. The HEAT are now 45-3 over their last 48 games, including a sparkling 8-1 in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. That mind-boggling record is the result of contributions, sacrifice and dedication from every player on the hard-working HEAT's roster – from repeat NBA MVP LeBron James all the way down to reserve sharpshooter Mike Miller. But it's also no coincidence that Cole has been at his best during this sizzling stretch, especially on the offensive end. And especially from long-range. Cole averaged 5.2 points and hit 50.0 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts in 18 games in March, and the HEAT went 17-1 – setting not only a club record for wins in a single month, but establishing a new NBA benchmark as well. In their lone loss in March, a 101-97 defeat to the Bulls in Chicago that snapped that historic 27-game win streak, Cole was held scoreless on 2 field goal attempts and played just 11 minutes off the bench. In 9 games in April, Cole averaged 10.3 points and shot 47.6 percent from long-range, and the HEAT went 8-1, closing out their unforgettable season with an 8-game winning streak. Cole scored 11 points or more in 5 of those 9 games, and at least 8 points in all but 1 of them – a 2-point outing in a 105-93 win over those same Bulls. Cole more than atoned for his meager offensive output against the Bulls in the regular season with his explosive showing in the HEAT's recently completed playoff series, and his 11.5-point average on that absurd 69 percent overall shooting and 81.8 percent from long-distance revealed a rapidly improving and always hard-working young professional to a much wider audience. ABC analyst and former NBA coach Jeff VanGundy mentioned that HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly praised the toughness, work ethic and consistent demeanor of Cole, who he called "Udonis Haslem in a guard's body." Other broadcasters spoke of Cole's near-obsessive dedication to improving, including his penchant for solo shootarounds at AmericanAirlinesArena's Bayfront practice court during HEAT off days and nights, and TNT's outspoken panel of former NBA greats routinely praised Cole for his aggressiveness, efficiency and stellar two-way play. Not bad for a second-year player who ranks as the youngest member of a veteran-laden roster. Cole doesn't even turn 25 until Oct. 13, yet his outstanding playoff performances are helping the HEAT move closer and closer toward their goal of securing a second straight NBA Championship in June. If the HEAT accomplish that goal, then Cole will have played extensively in 2 NBA seasons – and have 2 Championship rings to show for it. Now that's what you call a hot start. Much like the way Cole has come blazing out of the gates here in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. And caught observers, analysts and defenders alike a good bit off guard along the way.