This season the Toronto Raptors have given fans a number of reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. With a young core of players, and a relatively inexperienced head coach, no one expected the level of on court success that has transpired so far for the Raps this season. With that said, tonight's game against the reigning NBA champions, the Miami Heat, should serve as a reminder of just how far this franchise has left to grow. In the absence of Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen, two valuable players in the Heat's rotation, LeBron James put on a royal performance to lift his team to a 93-83 victory over Toronto. James finished with a MVP-esque stat line of 32 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists.
Just another day at the office for the King, I guess.
So where did this game go wrong?
First off, the referees weren't doing the Raptors any favours. The final foul count of 25 (TOR) to 14 (MIA) reflects the disparity of calls in favour of the Heat. Both teams are known for playing tough defense and the physicality was certainly on display tonight, but it seemed as though the refs swallowed their whistles on a number of occasions and it cost the Raps big time. What did it cost them exactly? Well, the Heat were granted 12 more attempts at the free throw line and, partially thanks to uncharacteristically poor FT shooting (5/10 as a team) by the Raps, this translated into a 13 point Miami advantage in that department alone.
Another area of weakness that was particularly frustrating to watch was the play calling. I'm not sure what the game plan was going into tonight's game, but the one thing that was clearly working early on was the use of Jonas Valanciunas in the post. But for some reason, that strategy was ignored once the second half started. Valanciunas made his presence felt in 16 minutes of first half play by scoring 10 points on 5 of 6 shooting and it seem as though the Raptors had found an weakness to exploit in the robust Heat defense. With Greg Oden also being out of the Heat rotation tonight (unsurprisingly), there was no player dressed for the Heat that could match up against the size and strength of the Lithuanian center. Unfortunately this matchup advantage was not obvious enough for the Raptors coaching staff to exploit, as Jonas was almost invisible in the second half and only saw three more shot attempts after being 5/6 on first half FGs. This has been a recurring theme lately and should be addressed if Toronto is serious about making a run in the playoffs.
Although Greivis Vasquez played well in his extended floor time, the injury to Kyle Lowry surely didn't help the Raptors chances of coming back in this one. Lowry ran into the basketball equivalent of a monster-truck in LeBron James late in the second quarter and fell to the court holding his knee in pain. It didn't seem to be anything too serious as he continued to play into halftime and even saw some playing time in the third quarter, but after nine minutes in the third he was pulled from the game and did not return. In the grand scheme of things, a win or loss in this game means nothing compared to the severity of Lowry's injury. He's arguably been the Raptors MVP this season and will be counted on heavily come playoff time. I know I'll be saying a special prayer to the basketball gods tonight, lord knows they owe this franchise a few favours.
Lastly, the Raptors just didn't get the production that we've come to expect from our key role players. Particularly, Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross both had quiet nights - combining for only 6 points on 3 of 9 shooting. Ross was challenged with guarding LeBron to start the game, an assignment that I thought he handled considerably well for a second year player, but his shooting stroke was nowhere to be found. As the Raps started to fall behind, Dwane Casey looked elsewhere for offensive production and Ross was limited to only eight minutes in the second half.
Another note from tonight's game was the return of Patrick Patterson to the lineup. Patterson has been sidelined recently with an elbow injury and his contributions coming off of the bench have been greatly missed. His performance tonight is indicative that he may need a few games to regain his form as he only played a total of eight minutes.
With two more tough games this week, playing Houston on Wednesday and the conference-leading (but suddenly struggling) Indiana Pacers on Friday, the Raptors will need to forget about this loss quickly and refocus. The Chicago Bulls are now tied with Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings and with only eight more games left, each one should be viewed as a must win.