Raptors fandom is the business of sadists. Toronto fans have seen it all in 21 years. Game 7 misses, 60-loss seasons, first round flops, emigrating stars, Andrea Bargnani - it seems no form of suffering has been left off the table. But just when you think the Raptors franchise has reached its peak potential for fan torment, the research and development team comes out with a shiny, new and innovative way to rip the hearts out of its loyal followers.
Game 1 against the Heat on Tuesday had the look and feel of a typical series-opening loss for the Raptors. There was some good, there was some bad - nothing disastrous, but disappointing nonetheless for a team with a history of Game 1 ineptitude.
It felt familiar, until it didn't.
Kyle Lowry's prayer was answered! https://t.co/msrkDCu86v— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 4, 2016
Kyle Lowry's absurd, hysteria-inducing half-court buzzer-beater sent Game 1 to a place it had no business going if not for some mind-blowing Heat miscues in the game's final minute: overtime.
Of course, Dwyane Wade led an Miami overtime surge that crushed the hope that had been restored to the now 75 percent-filled Air Canada Centre. A second chance at some at-the-horn heroics fell flat as DeMar DeRozan fumbled the ball away, and the Raptors were handed the loss they probably deserved to receive five minutes prior, but in a far more crushing fashion.
It's easy now to let that bummer of an overtime get you down on the Raptors overall effort in Game 1. Terrence Ross embarrassingly had his pocket picked by Wade after a key defensive stop, DeRozan missed an open DeMarre Carroll on the game's final play, Lowry was tentative and deferential, and maybe the Raptors never would have found themselves in such a predicament had Casey not gone back to some of the odd lineups that killed him in Game 1 of the last series. All are fair points to criticize, but the final five minutes don't erase some of the things the Raptors excelled at during the course of the game.
With the dust settled and tears wiped away, you can see some outlines of a formula for the Raptors to beat the Heat.
The New Starting Five
Casey's decision to alter his starting five for a third time in these playoffs was a mild surprise, but it made sense. Miami is almost exclusively a four-out team, and having DeRozan, Norman Powell and Carroll manning the two-through-four positions allowed the Raptors to have a pair of strong on-ball defenders to tackle Wade and Joe Johnson while hiding DeRozan on Luol Deng.
"Defensively I thought the match-ups were better for us," said Casey of his funky new starting unit. " I thought the tempo, the pace of the game that it created was good for us. We gotta continue that. We gotta continue to push the pace, makes or misses, I think that's an area where we have to take advantage of."
Toronto has excelled by playing a plodding style this year, but against a Miami team that is short on depth and long on years, making the game a little more frenzied with a small starting unit might be an interesting wrinkle to test out against the Heat.
Toronto scored just 18 points in the opening frame, and the revamped starters were even in 16 minutes played together on the night, but it's a look worth going back to given how rock solid it was defensively. With the feel-out game out of the way, some of the fluid ball movement the Raptors displayed in the first quarter might start translating into a higher conversion rate.
"There was no rhythm to it ," said Casey of the games' early going. "We wanted to create a pace and tempo. We got a little frenetic, we took some tough three point shots that I thought were a little deep, that would could have got a better shot on the weak side."
Toronto created 42 potential assists in Game 1 per NBA.com, up from their average of 39 in seven games against the Pacers and markedly better than their season average of 35.3. Much of that enhanced ball-swinging was initiated by the new starting five.
Solving the Whiteside Riddle
Hassan Whiteside is a bad man. Swatting shots shots is his forte, and the Raptors obviously respect that. Don't let the one lonely block on his final stat line fool you - Whiteside's presence was a deterrent for the Raptors all night. For the majority of four quarters, Raptors ball-handlers trembled whenever they walked through his shadow
Whiteside presents an interesting dilemma for the Raptors' primary offensive creators. He notoriously over-commits on drivers in search of flashy blocks, leaving his big man open and relying on his smaller teammates to rotate over to fill the void.
Toronto is a team that can exploit the blemishes in Whiteside's defensive style. With a sure-handed and physically dominant centre like Jonas Valanciunas, and the passing craftiness of DeRozan and Lowry, the Raptors can punish Whiteside when he gets overzealous. To do so, the Raptors' guards need to solve the balancing act of deciding whether to pass off to the big man or shoot over Whiteside before he envelopes you.
For much of the game, you could see DeRozan struggling to work out the equation in his head on the fly, leading to awkward passes to Valanciunas or indecisive, half-hearted shots.
As the game progressed, though, DeRozan stopped viewing Whiteside as some insurmountable monolith. In the fourth quarter, he drove right at Whiteside's chest for a crucial three-point play opportunity (he missed the free throw), and began to find the sweet-spot of when to pass and when to shoot as he approached the waiting Whiteside.
It wasn't just DeRozan who grew to be unafraid of Whiteside. Cory Joseph sprinkled in doses of uneasiness before starting to attack. As it turns out, Joseph is still an outstanding finisher in close, even against the league's runaway leader in blocked shots. Joseph was 4-of-4 at the rim, and gave the Raptors' offense a kick in the ass while Lowry struggled to impact the game in the first 40 minutes.
Valanciunas also seemed determined to attack Whiteside in the post. It didn't go all that smoothly in Game 1 - he seemed to press the issue a bit in the first quarter and bobbled the ball more than once. But we saw with Al Jefferson in round one that Whiteside can be overpowered by burly, traditional post scorers. Valanciunas isn't nearly as refined as Jefferson, but at the very least some of those one-on-one situations will eventually turn in to Whiteside fouls. If the Raptors can chase Miami's lone rim protector and rebounding dynamo to the bench, life near the basket will be so much less complex and scary.
Casey's team didn't handle the Whiteside problem with much composure for most of Game 1, but there were signs late that may indicate the Raptors are en route to cracking the code.
Terrence Ross is alive!
Ross' overtime turnover to Wade was demoralizing and hilariously on-brand. After a game in which he scored 19 points on a clean 7-of-13, made extra passes and played solid defense (at one point even stuffing Joe Johnson the way fans hoped he'd be able to do in the 2014 playoffs) - Ross's giveaway to Wade was the pin that popped the balloon he had filled with happy vibes up to that point.
That gaffe aside, Ross' Game 1 showing - probably the best playoff game he's ever turned in - was a massive development for the Raptors. If this can be carried over - which is no guarantee given who we're talking about - it gives the Raptors a four-deep rotation of dependable wings and an additional defender to use against Wade, Johnson and maybe even Dragic going forward.
"We need his scoring, we need his shooting until Kyle gets his jump shot going again. Somebody like that has to step up." said Casey of Ross' game.
Ross' stand-out moments always seem to be fleeting, but here's hoping his Game 1 display gives him the confidence to play with intensity and swagger he showed on Tuesday throughout the rest of this series.
The Raptors have the depth advantage
Game 1 put the Heat's lack of depth and lineup versatility on full display. Miami caught fire in the second half of the season after switching to its four-out configuration out of necessity when Chris Bosh went down. The team has ridden that identity switch a long way; they snagged the three-seed, outlasted the Hornets and now hold a 1-0 lead in the second round despite essentially relying on seven players.
Playoff series have a way of forcing teams to evolve. In the last round we saw both the Raptors and Pacers alter their starting lineups, and experiment with five man combos that had sparsely or never played together. Miami can't really do that. Because of injury and quirky roster construction, Miami has just one big man worthy of playoff minutes, and doesn't even have a traditional back up point guard. When Goran Dragic sits, it's Wade and Josh Richardson who typically run the offense.
Erik Spoelstra has to rely heavily on his horses - all five of his starters (three of whom are north of 30) played 37 minutes or more on Tuesday night. On top of that, Miami doesn't possess the weapons to vary its style all that much. If the Raptors are able to pick the Heat apart with a particular lineup that is either too big or too fast, Miami likely won't have a counter. Going big, for example, would require Amar'e Stoudamire or Udonis Haslem to play and neither of them can hang in this series (Haslem was a -9 in under six minutes on Game 1).
As this series meanders along and the Raptors discover configurations that work, the shorthanded Heat might simply be unable to adapt.
At least Kyle Lowry acknowledges his poor play
Time to grasp at some straws. Lowry was a nightmare for the first three-plus quarters of yesterdays game. Normally when his shot is failing him, he is still able to distribute and make the grimy plays that add up to a Raptors win. That wasn't the case Tuesday night. He looked more thrown off by Whiteside's presence than any of the Raptors playmakers - an issue that was compounded by his reluctance to shoot.
"I passed up a lot of shots tonight. I passed up a ton of shots actually," said Lowry.
It wasn't until he started mucking it up on the offensive glass late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 that Lowry started to make a positive impact on the game.
There isn't much to derive from Lowry's recent slump that can make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. He's shooting a historically bad percentage, and there's no escaping the feeling that his right elbow may end up being this Raptors team's Achilles heel. Lowry insists the elbow is fine, and Zach Lowe suggested on his podcast this week that there is no real injury concern with the Raptors' best player. This image is damning, though.
I'm no doctor, but I don't think this is what elbows are supposed to look like pic.twitter.com/yyHVHaP74k— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) May 4, 2016
Maybe it's just a matter of Lowry adjusting his mechanics to compensate for the limitations on his elbow, and maybe his post game session of solo shooting at the ACC will help to achieve that. If nothing else, Lowry is holding himself accountable for his shoddy play.
"It's kind of mind-boggling right now and it's frustrating but I'm not gonna shy away from the criticism or anything," Lowry said. "I know I'm not playing well at all. We got out of one series with me not playing well, shooting the ball well, but we gotta get out of this next series and I have to play better, shoot the ball better, score the ball better.
The confidence level can't be high right now that Lowry will regain the form that landed him in the three-point contest at All Star Weekend. His jumper just seems too broken.
That said, even with his 3-of-13 shooting night and general invisibility for most of Game 1, Lowry managed to be a +7 on the night, because he is Kyle Lowry.
Were there any other things that gave you hope for the rest of the series?