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Nick Nurse: 'Unknown' Raptors one of NBA's biggest surprises

Kyle Lowry is the only player on the Toronto Raptors' roster who has played more than four full seasons with the franchise. Photo by Nicole Sweet/UPI
Kyle Lowry is the only player on the Toronto Raptors' roster who has played more than four full seasons with the franchise. Photo by Nicole Sweet/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said the team's roster might include a lot of "unknown" players, but their organized playing style and defensive effort has led them to be one of the NBA's biggest surprises this season.

Nurse commented before his Raptors battled the Miami Heat -- another team with a surprisingly strong record -- Thursday in Miami.

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"I think people have said we're probably the two biggest surprises and we have a similar record, a lot of unknown player sand we like to guard," Nurse said before the 84-76 loss. "I really give them credit for the way they play defense. They'v been very organized."

The Raptors (23-12) roster still includes some household names. Perennial All-Star Kyle Lowry remains in the lineup nightly. Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Patrick McCaw and OG Anunoby started along Lowry in Thursday's game.

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The Heat (25-9) have a similar story. All-Star Jimmy Butler is surrounded by veteran role players and a cast of of up-and-coming talents nightly. The Heat also use tough defense and organized, physical play to give opponents trouble.

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Thursday's game was a microcosm for the way both teams play. The contest lacked offensive fireworks, but featured tough defensive play by both teams.

Several departures

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Many similarities can be seen with the way the Raptors and Heat franchises reacted after past postseason glory. The Raptors watched superstar Kawhi Leonard head to the Los Angeles Clippers this off-season, after winning an NBA title. They traded DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs a season earlier to acquire Leonard. Despite losing both star players, the Raptors keep winning.

Toronto and Miami rank third and fourth in the Eastern Conference, respectively.

The Heat won the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons, before the stars started leaving. Miami lost the NBA Finals during the 2013-2014 season, LeBron James' last year with the team. The Heat missed the playoffs the next season.

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Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade -- the other members of the Heat's Big 3 -- were off the roster during the Heat's 2016-2017 campaign, but the Heat still finished 41-41.

Wade returned briefly the next season, providing some star power on a roster full of role players. The Heat made the playoffs that season before Wade retired a season later, leaving the lineup void of a superstar. Now Miami has returned as a contender.

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Leonard received his championship ring from the Raptors in December. He said he considered returning to the team during the off-season, before opting to team up with superstar Paul George in Los Angeles. Raptors fans embraced Leonard as he returned to the city for the first time since the championship parade.

"It was a hard choice to make," Leonard said.

Now Leonard's Clippers have nearly an identical record to the Raptors. James' Los Angeles Lakers have just two more wins than the Heat.

"We look at the Raptors and see a lot of ourselves," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Both teams have probably been in some ways overlooked, discounted at the beginning of the year. There's mountain-sized chips on each other's shoulders. They do things the right way. They defend at a high level. They play with energy and they share the ball.

"If you're not playing against them, you can respect that as a fan for sure."

The Heat beat the Raptors in overtime Dec. 3 before Thursday's win. The teams have a rematch April 14 in Miami.

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