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Raptors hang tight against the Heat, win 96-94

Led by DeMar DeRozan’s 38 points, the Raptors took another strong step towards the playoffs.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Each time the RaptorsDeMar DeRozan caught the ball in tonight’s 96-94 win over the Miami Heat, it felt like points were coming. DeRozan didn’t hit every shot he took — he was 14-of-32 from the field after all — but there was a certain comfort whenever he had the ball in hand. Through all the ups and downs of the Raptors this season, after dealing with injuries and welcoming trades, DeRozan has proven something to his team, and himself: this is sustainable, this is possible, this works.

For the first half, anyway. Despite a quick 7-point hole — what else is new? — DeRozan and crew exerted their will for the game’s opening two quarters. DeMar led the way with 25 of the team’s 53 points on a stellar display of shooting and athleticism. He went to the baseline spin, he lured defenders to sleep with dribble moves (my favourite part), he scooped and dunked and shot the Raptors to a lead that grew as comfortable as 18 points. In support, DeMar’s teammates helped hold the Heat to 34 percent shooting (20 percent from three), while forcing nine turnovers. It wasn’t a particularly balanced effort, but DeRozan sure was something to watch. “I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league that makes more contested shots over the top with good defence than DeMar DeRozan,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra afterwards.

But the Heat, those feisty, restless Heat players, led by human gnat Goran Dragic and former Raptor James Johnson, kept Miami in it. It was Dragic’s 18 points, along with Johnson’s big 22 points, 10 rebounds and three assists that paced the Heat, drawing them even with the Raptors at 82, late in the fourth quarter. Toronto’s offense was struggling, mostly because DeRozan’s dynamite production had slowed, and there wasn’t a ton of secondary scoring to be found. Fortunately, despite the Heat’s swarming defense, DeRozan recovered in time — his finger roll down the lane and free throws iced it on the way to 38 points for the game — Lowry found his footing, and a late tie was as close to a win as the Heat got.

“That’s what I think is good for us right now,” said coach Dwane Casey of the Heat’s desperate comeback attempt. “To be challenged like that, to be in tough situations against pressure, against physicality, and it gets us ready for what’s about to come.”

The Raptors’ rotation, as per Casey, appears to be taking its final playoff form. Eight players in, with a trio — Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Norman Powell — on the fringe just in case. Despite a monster comeback game from Lowry on Wednesday, tonight was a modest return to Earth — just 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting, plus six assists and seven rebounds. Lowry is not quite all the way back, but that doesn’t mean he lacks the ability to seize the moment; half of Lowry’s points came in the final frame, including a run-killing three, and a drive into the teeth of old pal Johnson. It makes a difference having Lowry out there.

The rest of the Raptors were generally solid in their roles. After a strong run as the team’s starting point guard, Joseph is back to his old self as the Raps’ super-sub. He had 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting (and hit both his 3s!). Serge Ibaka went for 11 and 9, but was most useful from three-point range — where Patrick Patterson has lost himself (once again), and DeMarre Carroll is only sporadically helpful. This was also a game for P.J. Tucker, the member of the Raptors most difficult to bowl over. He put a goose egg up in the scoring column, but helped anchor the team’s defense. Likewise, in his way, Jonas Valanciunas proved valuable too. He put in nine points, grabbed 10 rebounds and added two blocks, while also doing a lot to take Miami’s lone dangerous big man, Hassan Whiteside, out of the game. (Though, to be fair, for a stretch there it looked like Whiteside took himself out of the game.)

It would be nice, however, to not have to watch the Raptors seesaw in and out of games over and over again. Against Charlotte and Indiana recently, it was hard to watch; meanwhile, the comeback win in Detroit was thrilling, but exhausting. Playing in these sorts of games does probably help a team’s playoff preparation — the Raptors are going to see this kind of intensity a lot, and very soon. But, hoo boy, sometimes it would be nice to have a break.

Fortunately for Raptors fans now, we can count on DeRozan to make things happen down the stretch. Who thought we’d ever be able to say that?