With these playoffs serving as the incubator, the Toronto Raptors are growing up right before our own eyes. With a commanding performance from Kyle Lowry, the Raptors took Game 3, 95-91 to lead the series 2-1.
After only playing 17 minutes in Game 2, Patrick Patterson got the start as Casey chose to use his versatile power forward to guard Joe Johnson. Although 2Pat would be up for the task, the first quarter belonged to Jonas Valanciunas. Largely in part to DeMar's comments over the weekend about JV being the dominant center in the series, many eyes were on the big man matchup; a fact that received further fuel when the Heat opened the game with a Wade to Whiteside alley-oop. Whiteside may have struck first, but Valanciunas struck back with more force. To open the game, the Raptors very deliberately played 1 in, 4 out and simply let the big man from Lithuania go to work.
Jonas played dominantly. From backdowns, to face up mid range baskets, there was no doubt who the best big man on the court was. The play that encapsulated Jonas' game: with 2:41 to go in the quarter. JV fought through two Heat players who jointly tried to box him out, tipped the ball to himself off of a DeMar miss, retrieved it, then threw down a vicious dunk to put the team up 17-13. Jonas is simply too big, too strong for the Heat to handle. He would finish the quarter with 8 of his eventual 16 points. Raptors 23-19.
The second quarter started off with yet another unfortunate injury, something that has been happening with too much frequency throughout these playoffs. After fighting for position with Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph, Hassan Whiteside fell awkwardly and hurt his knee, headed to the locker room and did not return. The rest of the quarter felt choppy. Toronto played some sloppy minutes, at one point giving the ball away 3 times in three minutes. Dragic and Johnson took turns keeping Miami in the game, while Jonas continued to exert his will on the Heat including converting a ridiculous tip in/dunk alley oop from Cory Joseph. With that, the Raptors took a 9 point lead into half time.
The second half started with a welcome sight, along with a dreadful one. On the bright side, Lowry connected on two shots from beyond the arc, getting the ball rolling on what would be a much needed 15 point quarter for our star point guard. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck again, taking Valanciunas down with 8:52 to go after he turned his ankle while defending a Wade drive. If watching the big man leave the game with 16 points and 12 rebounds in 22 minutes did not raise concern in your mind, then you're either not a fan, or a prophet who somehow foresaw Lowry going supernova. With both teams missing their starting centers, Miami turned up the pressure, picking up full court. Between Dwyane Wade dropping 18 points in the frame and forgetting that its not 2006, and Terrence Ross forgetting that you're supposed to pass the ball to your own teammates, especially when under your own basket, the Heat tied the game at 68 apiece with 12 minutes to go.
Miami went up by as much as 6 before Toronto regained control of the game. One potential reason? The Luis Scola sighting that lasted a little too long. Honestly, I don't see Casey's thinking on this one. Scola checked in with 2:11 left in the third quarter, and played the first 3 minutes of the fourth. In his 5 minutes, he committed 3 fouls which helped Miami get into the bonus by the 9:29 mark; not a good sign. As if to subtly tell his coach not to make the same mistake, Patterson's first play upon checking back in was an And-1 drive on Josh McRoberts. We see you 2Pat.
With the exception of a couple of DeMar jumpers and free throws, the rest of the game was the Kyle Lowry show. As a fan, it felt like seeing an old and dearly missed friend return. From a beautifully executed give and go that led to a cutting lay-up, to pull up 3s, Kyle looked like his pre-All Star break self. With Wade valiantly accepting the duel with Toronto's star, the play of the game has to be Lowry staring down Wade, rejecting the screen to take two hard dribbles left, stop on a dime and can the jumper to put the Raptors up 3 with 31 seconds to go. Converted free throws and (mostly) missed shots from Miami would lead to the final buzzer, Toronto 95 Miami 91, and like that, Game 3 is in the books.
- The Inside-Out offensive scheme of the Raptors in the opening quarter was good to see. Even though the league is trending away from the traditional "pound it inside" approach, the Raptors showed how effective the strategy can be when you have a big man capable of scoring in a multitude of ways around the basket. The success of this strategy may have led to a shortage of 3 point attempts (4 in the quarter, 1 of which was an end-of-quarter heave), but served as an example that there is more than one way to play effective basketball.
- There was a big sequence in the 2nd in which Jonas got blocked point blank at the rim by McRoberts which led to a fast break layup by Deng. Essentially Cojo held on to the ball a bit longer than he should have, eventually fed JV who had no other option but to try to go up and dunk. For some players like DeAndre Jordan, this is the ideal set up: don't think, don't do more than you're comfortable with, just do what you do best which is catch and finish. A player like Jonas is the antithesis of a player that is at his best when he catches and finishes. Valanciunas is skilled enough that he is more effective when he has time and room to operate, to use his body and quickness to create an advantage going to the basket. The Raptors are going to miss him.
- As Wade was dropping 18 points in the 3rd, all I could think was: where is DeMar? I'm hoping now that Lowry has had his breakout game of the postseason, that DeMar is due. 6-17 from the field is not going to cut it from an All Star from the 2 seed. Also, DeMar is lucky that the Raptors pulled this one out because had the team lost, a lot more attention would have been placed on his terrible decision making down the stretch. With Lowry cooking, DeRozan took a couple brutal shots, including a fully contested turnaround jumped. On both occasions with under 4 minutes to go, Miami followed up with a made basket. The two shots that DeRozan took are objectively poor shots in a vacuum. Within the context of failing to "feed the furnace" in Lowry as much high school coach used to say, DeRozan's shots are that much more inexcusable. Come on DeMar, you're better than that. Oh, and does anyone else feel like a trigger warning is needed at the sight of Joe Johnson posting up DeRozan, or is that just me?
- Erik Spoelstra is an underrated coach. He may not be quite on the Popovich, Carlisle, and Kerr echelon, but is firmly near the top of the next tier of Head Coaches. That said, he made a peculiar decision in not playing Dragic down the stretch. At first, it seemed like he was saving Dragic' 6th foul, but as the game headed into its final minutes, what would he be saving it for? Although Goran didn't have the most efficient scoring night, he is no doubt more of a scoring threat, and steady hand than Josh Richardson. Make no mistake: Dragic can play, and is one of multiple exhibits in the "Daryl Morey is overrated and a poor evaluator of talent on his own roster" narrative (see also: Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin). Dragic may not quite be an all star, but he is deceptively athletic, excellent at keeping his dribble alive in traffic and probing the defense, and can score in a variety of ways. As a Raptors fan, I'm glad that he didn't finish the game, but as a basketball fan I found the move confusing.
- Did anyone else find Jon Barry's man crush on Udonis Haslem a bit odd? Yeah, he's a champion, a solid veteran, great locker room guy, etc. Although he ended up playing a solid game, Barry was gushing about a guy who averaged 7 minutes and less than a basket a game, from the moment he checked in. I think this is where the kids say "chill, bro."
- Patrick Patterson's improvement in terms of defensive versatility this year has been great to see. The fact that he is one of Toronto's best options for dominant wing scorers is a testament to his defensive intelligence and commitment to expanding his game. The next area of improvement for 2Pat will be learning to navigate screens. Staying in front of Joe Johnson in a straight up ISO is one thing, learning to stay in front or more likely getting parallel at an advantageous angle upon recovering from a screen is something completely different, something that big men rarely encounter. If 2Pat can improve on this, his already stalwart defense will be that much better.
- Finally, I must say that it was so good to see Toronto have the collective mental fortitude to pull through. The mental effect of getting rid of the proverbial "monkey on our backs" cannot be understated. It took the Raptors 3 tries to excise the demons of choking in the first round. Now that they're through, this looks like a team that no longer doubts, that believes. All I can say is, lets go Raptors!
What did you guys think? Any key concerns for Game 4? Share your thoughts in the comments.