To these Raptors, the Miami Heat represent at best an exhausting nuisance. They have some undeniably talented players, a smart coach, and a crafty veteran leader — but they’re not really a match for Toronto. If nothing else, Sunday evening’s game was instructive for two reasons. First, the Heat really are a team that will not quit, even when they probably should. And two, it was satisfying to watch the Raptors beat Miami, 125-115.
To the Heat’s credit, they did their usual thing for much of the first half, and then again in a big way in the third quarter — they hung around and threatened the lead. For a Raptors team that’s had some trouble lately maintaining leads and playing to their strengths, it was encouraging to see them weather the Heat’s never-say-die attitude. We know Miami can’t match the Raptors’ talent level, but their hard-nosed identity is well-established. These new Kawhi Leonard-led Raps meanwhile are still finding themselves at times. Watching them exert their will on this game was edifying — the Raptors were meant to win their way, and they did.
As is usual, we begin at the top: Leonard had another strong game with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks, while shooting 8-of-20 from the field, and 3-of-8 from three. There wasn’t a lot the Heat could to do slow him down, other than watching him miss some wide open threes. That doesn’t mean Leonard wasn’t annoyed by all of the Heat’s defensive pressure — tonight apparently marked the first regular season technical foul of Kawhi’s career. (Though that may have had more to do with how referee Tony Brothers was officiating the game as it related to Leonard — when asked if he earned that tech, Kawhi would only say: “Definitely.”)
Meanwhile, Kawhi’s partner in the front court (or wing, or everywhere all at once) Pascal Siakam also had himself a game, going wild for 21 points on a ridiculous 8-of-9 shooting night, while grabbing six boards and dishing three assists. True to his nature now, Siakam also had enough impossible to predict spin moves and finishes at the rim that one can lose count. When paired with Kawhi, this Raptors duo was a terror on defense, helping to hound the Heat into 41 percent shooting for the night. Miami had just seven turnovers, but easy shots proved difficult to come by for long stretches of tonight’s game.
They alone couldn’t stop the eventual Heat run though. Led by Dwyane Wade’s retro 35 point, five rebound, six assist performance, Miami managed to lower the Raps’ 26-point third quarter lead to a mere eight points in the fourth quarter. Once again the Heat made things uncomfortable for the Raptors. Fortunately, Toronto’s bench was strong enough to fend off Miami’s attack, with 10 points each from Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, and C.J. Miles, plus eight from Serge Ibaka, and the team’s starters put the game away.
On both team’s performances, Raptors coach Nick Nurse tipped his cap to the effort of the Heat, while also acknowledging his team’s apparent struggle with putting games away — while admitting he’s not “super worried about it” just yet. “[The Heat have] got some shot-makers and they’re going to play hard all the time,” said Nurse. “And I don’t know, it seems like Groundhog Day for us. We get up and then let it get back inside 10 and starting playing again. It seems like that’s who we are right now.”
Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ emotive leader, didn’t score much tonight, but once again dictated tempo and made sure everyone got a chance to do their thing. Lowry would finish with 12 points and ten assists, and was certainly not about to let things get out of hand. Look no further than Jonas Valanciunas’ production, at a solid 17 points and ten boards in just 24 minutes, with a few Lowry-led alley-oops, to see just one example of what Kyle does to settle the Raptors. For their parts, Wright and VanVleet did indeed have their moments too — the former got to bomb a couple 3s on his idol Wade, and the latter got to express his whole game — a three, a tough finish at the rim, stout defense — to help secure the victory.
The Heat got production from their usual sources — Josh Richardson had 19 points and five rebounds, Bam Adebayo went off for a monster 16-and-21 — but the story was the ageless (and annoying) wonder Wade. The Heat’s long-time leader had a truly vintage performance, and seemed to make every big play for Miami. In his way, Wade’s confidence is infectious, imbuing the Heat with their tough-minded attitude. You’d have to admire it, if it wasn’t so tiresome to watch when it happens against these Raptors.
“It was awesome, man,” said Lowry of Wade’s game. “He’s a Hall of Famer, future Hall of Famer rather, one of the greatest competitors out there. Champion. So it was honour for me to still be able to play against him for one last season for him.”
Still, try as Wade and the Heat might, the Raptors remain the better team. By the time Lowry was bombing in a three from the mid-court logo, or Kawhi was stripping Wade’s latest offensive effort literally right out of his hands, or Siakam was flying down the lane for yet another layup, Miami just did not have the talent to punch back. They can hang around all they like, but the fact remains: an NBA game eventually ends.
Chalk this one up as another W for the now 17-4 Raptors. They were tested by the Heat, and passed with flying colours. Now comes contests against the Grizzlies, defending champion Warriors, and the tougher month of December. Let’s see how they do.