We have a seven-game Sunday slate of NBA basketball without any especially big matchups, but it's hard to ignore the burgeoning third power in the East. With the Raptors slowly asserting themselves as a formidable force following the Rudy Gay trade, a Sunday night matchup against the Heat should be another test of how good this team really is.
Main Course: Miami Heat vs. Toronto Raptors
6 p.m. ET
Since the Gay trade, the Raptors have emerged as the obvious third-best team in the Eastern Conference. Led by a surprising young core, Toronto has gone 9-3 since the deal and has beaten some pretty good teams in the process, including the Pacers, Thunder and Mavericks. Now staring at consecutive road games in Miami and Indiana over the next three nights, this could be the Raptors' next chance to show that they're indeed becoming one of the league's most dangerous squads.
Can Miami stem the Raptors' rising performance? Instead of dismissing this as a fluke, the statistics say Toronto's recent rise has been backed by some seriously awesome play. But what's really impressive is the constant improvement. Over the team's past 15 games, it's had a net rating of plus-5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Pare that down to the past 10, the number jumps to plus-9.4. And during the team's current five-game winning streak, it's beating teams by 15.7 points per 100 possessions. If the Heat get a win on Sunday, it's against a team that's legitimately walloping its opponents of late.
Can the Heat find open shots against a quick Toronto defense? Much of being made of the Raptors' improvement on offense in terms of floor spacing and ball movement since Gay's departure, but defense is where the team is winning games. Toronto is already seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency at 100.2 points allowed per 100 posessions, per NBA.com, and that number is decreasing quickly. Over the team's past five games, it's 90.8. For Miami, that means looking to San Antonio, a team that's beat the Raptors twice in the past month. By making every extra pass and getting the best possible shots, something Toronto has done a good job of disrupting lately with most opponents, the Heat could likely replicate the shooting success the Spurs found.
Appetizer: Washington Wizards vs. Golden State Warriors
6 p.m. ET
Really, what's not to like about Stephen Curry and John Wall facing off? Few players in the league are as exciting to watch at the point guard -- or any -- position, and the Wizards still badly need wins against top teams like Golden State if they're going to move the needle this season. Plus, when these two teams played last season, Wall got ejected after receiving a technical foul -- his second of the game -- for shoving Klay Thompson. There might be a little bad blood simmering from that altercation.
Going beyond the matchup at point guard, the Warriors have won eight straight games, so Washington has its work cut out tonight. The team is just 2-7 against the Western Conference this season, with four consecutive losses against West foes since beating the Lakers on Nov. 26. And given Golden State's high-powered offense, the Wizards' recent defensive woes likely won't get much of a rest.
Dessert: Dallas Mavericks vs. New York Knicks
7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV
The Mavericks are way better than the Knicks, but an improved Iman Shumpert makes a huge difference for New York and he's been on fire lately (12-of-14 from three-point range in the Knicks' last two games). Coming off a win in San Antonio and a close loss in Houston, it's not unreasonable to believe New York could be showing some signs of life as most people jump off the bandwagon.
Dallas has played well all season after going mostly under the radar in the summer. A core of Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Shawn Marion has led the team to a 19-14 record. Tyson Chandler gives New York an edge down low against his former team, and that may be where the Knicks will need to win this one. In the Mavs' last game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan combined for 50 points and 33 rebounds.