NBA

Heat's 3-point shooters will challenge Raptors

MIAMI -- If you go by the NBA standings, the Toronto Raptors are the better team.

But if you look at recent events, the Miami Heat is clearly superior.

That's what will be at play on Saturday night when the Heat (31-34) hosts the Raptors (38-27).

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The Heat is tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference -- still on the outside looking in for playoff positioning. Toronto, on the other hand, is safely in playoff position, sitting fourth in the East.

But, since Jan. 17, Toronto is less than average at 11-14 while the Heat is one of the best teams in the NBA at 20-4.

Friday night's 105-99 loss at the Atlanta Hawks continued Toronto's downward trend.

Toronto made just 16 percent of its 3-pointers -- 4-of-25 -- in the loss to Atlanta, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey said his shooters can't afford to be shy going forward.

"They have to take them," Casey said. "That's their shot. Whenever guys have the green light to take those shots that they work on every day ... We shot 100 of them (3-pointers in practice) the past couple of days. They are important shots."

Those 3-pointers have certainly been important to the Heat.

Miami has made 10 or more 3-pointers 31 times this season, which already ties a franchise record.

During its 20-4 run, the Heat leads the NBA by making 41 percent of its 3-pointers. Miami is 13-3 when it makes at least 13 3-pointers in a game.

In Wednesday night's win over the Charlotte Hornets, the Heat set a franchise record by attempting 41 3-pointers. They have also set a franchise record by making at least 15 3-pointers in three straight games.

The NBA record for 3-point shooting in a season is 42.8 percent by the 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets, and the Heat is approaching that record.

So how did this happen?

"We're a little bit healthier now," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, explaining, in part, why the team has improved its marksmanship. "We're an aggressive, attacking team. If you don't have attackers who command the respect of a defense to bring a second defender, the 3-point shooter is not going to be open."

Heat point guard Goran Dragic (42.3 percent) has been a consistent 3-point shooter all season. But shooters such as Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder and Luke Babbitt have greatly improved during this Heat run.

In addition, Wayne Ellington, Okaro White, Tyler Johnson and James Johnson are all solid 3-point shooters. That gives Miami eight players who are capable of making a 3-pointer with efficiency of at least 34 percent.

James Johnson, who signed a one-year deal with the Heat this past offseason, has been a key to the team because of his overall skills.

He was at 274 pounds with 14.5 percent body fat when he signed with Miami. Now he is at 238 pounds and 6.8 percent body fat, putting him in line for a long-term, big-money contract.

The Heat, hunting a playoff berth, is reportedly interested in signing power forward Jared Sullinger, who was released by the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 24.

Meanwhile, the Raptors are playing shorthanded without star point guard Kyle Lowry, who had surgery on his right wrist last month and is due to return in April.

With Lowry out, the Raptors are relying even more on 6-7 shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who on Friday became the first Raptors player to score 11,000 career points.

Raptors 6-8 small forward DeMarre Carroll, who returned on Friday after missing one game due to an ankle sprain, is another pivotal player.