Players and coaches don't believe in the concept of a moral victory -- or at least they rarely concede that they do when the media's around. A win's a win, a loss is a loss, and there's no grey area in-between. After the Raptors' narrow, 102-97 loss to the defending champion Miami Heat, both Dwane Casey and Kyle Lowry dismissed the notion of the moral victory -- no medals for losing, to paraphrase Casey. And yet, after watching the Raptors go toe-to-toe with the back-to-back NBA champs -- coming within a missed Amir Johnson bunny from possibly winning the game -- it's very tough to dismiss Sunday's game as simply loss number 16 on the year.
No, despite what Casey and Lowry assured us post-game, this was a moral victory.
After winning 5 straight games, the Raptors were due a let-down -- due a schedule loss, as they say (this was their 4th game of the week). And the good vibes surrounding the team would hardly have diminished had they been blown out on the road by the best offensive team in the NBA. You could picture the headlines being written even before tip-off: Raptors come back down to Earth with a thump. Or something along those lines.
But no, the new-look Raps hung with the Heat right until the very end. Granted, it was their 14th straight loss against Miami, but it's doubtful that the Raps played quite as well in any of the previous 13 defeats. In-fact, the Raps put in an effort last night that would've been good enough to beat most teams in the Eastern Conference. But those other teams in the East don't have a guy on their roster named LeBron James.
James top-scored for Miami with 30 points, on 12-18 shooting, and took over large stretches of the game with his (unfair) ability to get deep in the paint and blow by and post-up anyone and everyone on the Raptors roster. It's a banal observation, but LeBron is unguardable; and the Raptors perimeter players -- Terrence Ross and John Salmons, in particular -- essentially took turns getting in foul trouble during the 1st quarter. LeBron worked his vastly improved post-up game, and paced the Heat with 10 points through 12 minutes of play.
However, the Raptors, as they were for most of the game, were far from overawed in the 1st quarter. After falling behind 21-14, they hit back courtesy of some customary Lowry drives to the bucket, and a Patrick Patterson 3-pointer, resulting from some solid ball movement. There wasn't much defense on show in the 1st (Valanciunas was beaten off the dribble by Udonis Haslem. Ugh) but the teams were tied at 29.
Patterson gave the Raps their first lead of the game early in the 2nd, and DeMar DeRozan continued his own hot start to the game. DeMar went 8-10 from the field in the first half, good for 18 points. In the 2nd half he was only 3-9, when those long 2s -- the majority of his buckets in the 1st -- stopped falling. His shot selection throughout the game was questionable, but the Raps certainly needed those points to keep them in proceedings during the first half.
The Raps went in at the half down by one, despite shooting 55% from the floor. The problem, as it would be all game, was that the Raps couldn't make their free-throws. They were only 8-16 from the charity stripe in the first half, and finished the game 12-21 -- a Howardian 57%. The other reason the Raps ultimately came up short was because they failed to keep Miami off the offensive glass. The Heat had 8 offensive boards at the half, and finished with 14, giving them vital extra possessions. And all this despite the fact that the Heat have been the worst offensive rebounding team in the NBA this year. Before last night, they only averaged 6.5 offensive rebounds per game.
But despite their inability to hit from the line, and keep guys like Michael Beasley off the glass, the Raps came out in the 3rd quarter guns-a-blazing. They opened the 3rd with a 9-4 run; DeRozan knocking down a 3 off a Lowry steal, drive, and kick-out; followed by a deep trifecta from Lowry himself.
Lowry hit another 3 and got Jonas going after the big man had struggled in the first half. Jonas finished strong after a couple of great dishes from Lowry, and a beautiful pass under the basket from DeRozan (DeMar's a much better passer in the half-court than he is in transition). The Raptors opened up a 9-point lead and forced Erik Spoelstra to move away from his small-ball lineup, and bring Birdman (Birdman, Birdman) in the game to try to stop the bleeding in the paint.
Just weeks ago I would've laughed in your face if you'd told me that Dwane Casey would force another coach -- a very good coach -- into adjusting to his game; but that's just what happened in the 3rd quarter. Casey stayed big and the Raps racked up 33 3rd quarter points because of it.
And then the letdown.
The Raptors led by 5 (84-79) entering the 4th quarter -- a quarter in which they've pounded teams during their post-December 8th stretch -- but that lead would quickly evaporate. The Heat opened the quarter with a 5-0 run to tie up the game. And the Raps? Well, they didn't score until 5 minutes into the quarter. During that stretch the Raps went from getting trounced, to getting obliterated (yep, a much stronger verb) on the offensive glass.
The offense dried up, as the Raps went away from their obvious advantage down low, and decided to shoot long 2s; and out of the flow of the offense, off-the-bounce 3s. Both DeRozan and Lowry were guilty of taking such low-percentage jumpers.
Luckily for the Raps the Heat missed some open looks during that barren stretch, so Casey's boys were able to stay within striking distance. After starting the quarter 1 of 9 (again, the shot selection really became atrocious) Amir was able to force home an And-1. And after Amir and Jonas brilliantly denied James on a drive to the bucket, Amir cut the Heat's lead to one with a dunk off a Lowry drive and dish.
Amir (he was basically involved in everything down the stretch) played unreal defense on LeBron in isolation, forcing him into a fadeaway 2 which caught nothing but air. And if the Raps big-man, who finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks, had managed to drain a relatively simple hook shot (a shot that he probably makes 90% of the time) to put the Raps ahead, you could've phoned every Toronto Mayoral candidate and told them not to bother running in October.
As it was, he missed the shot, Lowry missed a step-back 3 that would've tied the game; and the Heat hit their free-throws down the stretch to wrap it up. Breathless stuff.
The Raps, now 16-16, head to frigid Indiana for Tuesday's tilt against the Pacers, who are likely looking for revenge after their New Year's Day defeat at the ACC. But one thing's for sure: the Raptors should fear no one. Bring on Paul George and company.
Additional Game Notes
- As mentioned, DeRozan was hitting everything in the 1st half, but most of those makes were from 16-20 feet. As the game wore on, and his legs got tired, those same shots stopped falling. Live by the jumper, die by the jumper, as Charles Barkley (always) says.
- The Raptors lost the battle of the bench, 43-15, thanks in part to the fact that Casey rode his starters hard (no Psycho T last night); but also because Super Cool Beas has become a very competent NBA role player this year. Beasley had 17 points on Sunday night and looked great as an inside-outside threat. Has a corner been turned?
- Valanciunas was bad in the first half, but looked like a different player in the 3rd quarter. Early in the season a bad start by JV would've resulted in his shoulders sagging, and him barely being seen for the rest of the game. Progress!
- Amir Johnson is awesome. That is all.
- Actually that's not all I want to say about Amir. His missed bunny reminded me a lot of Tim Duncan's miss in Game 7 of the NBA Finals...a little less riding on the shot, of course. Normally he makes that shot, but as Jack Armstrong mentioned on the broadcast, he looked like he rushed it. Whatever.
- We had a glimpse of Landry Fields tonight. Twas sad.
- Despite the fact that he was cold from beyond the arc last night, I didn't mind Lowry's attempt to tie up the game with a 3. His confidence is sky-high at the moment and he had Norris Cole guarding him. Not a terrible look.
- Not enough superlatives in the English language to describe what LeBron James does on a basketball court. Enjoy him now, people. We'll miss this guy when he's finally done with the game.