Most Americans are befuddled by the idea of Boxing Day. The notion that Canada gets a second holiday, right after Christmas, just strikes our southern brethren as weird. The fact that the U.S., the capitalist centre of the universe, passes on a massive shopping day is even weirder to me, but the fact remains, on December 26th, Americans are working.
For almost 28 minutes on Wednesday night, the Miami Heat were doing just that — working the Raptors over with aggressive defense, timely shot making, and a liberal dose of Toronto shooting themselves in the foot.
But then the Raptors woke up in the second half. Led by another great Kawhi Leonard game (30 points, eight rebounds, two assists), timely shooting from Danny Green (18 points, four 3s) and Fred VanVleet (16 pts, four 3s), and strong performances from Delon Wright and Norm Powell, Toronto would go on to win 106-104 over the Heat.
The Raptors started the game like a team that had had seconds. Miami was aggressive attacking the basket and early on Hassan Whiteside had his way with Raptors centre Serge Ibaka. Whiteside can be a limited player, but with Ibaka unable to make him pay with his pick-and-pop game, the Heat’s centre got comfortable and repeatedly over-powered the Raptors’ nominal five.
The nadir of this match-up came at about the half-way point of the quarter with Whiteside going coast-to-coast and spinning past Serge for a lay-in to make it 23-10 Heat.
Nick Nurse finally responded by going to Greg Monroe, and the Moose delivered. Monroe used his physical offensive game to bull through Whiteside, and smartly played off him to force Whiteside to tap into his limited shooting and passing game.
OG Anunoby also gave the Raps a lift, knocking down a triple and being aggressive with his dribble. Led by a greater display of defensive energy, Toronto cut the deficit to 31-23 at the end of one.
Delon Wright, who checked in with two minutes remaining in the first, and helped turn up the defense, continued to give the Raps a boost of energy. He used his rangy physique and hesitation dribble drive to cut open the Heat defense, and caused Miami trouble at the point of attack. The Heat, who played the game without a true point-guard (they started Justise Winslow in the role), struggled to get around Wright’s on-ball defense. And the Raps, following their point guard’s lead on both ends of the floor, played with force and cut the lead down to one point.
A few moments later, with Miami up by four, Leonard checked back in — surely Toronto would power past Miami and take control of the game?
Nope. The Heat dialed up their defense, made the Raps very uncomfortable and reaped the benefits of Toronto’s continued inability to hit from beyond the arc to outscore Toronto by 14 over the next six minutes. Whiteside continued to serve as an unstoppable lob target on one end and a massive defensive deterrent on the other. The Heat were credited with four blocks in the half, but my notes showed them swatting four shots in a barely two minute stretch during the run.
The net-effect was Miami going into the half up 58-44. The Raps shot less than 40 percent for the half, less than 30 from three, saw the Heat double them in assists (16-8), and own an edge in the rebounding battle.
Somehow, the Raptors started the second half in an even deeper funk — after Danny Green hit a jumper to start the quarter, the Raps went: missed shot, turn over, turn over, turn over, missed shot, before Green ended the awful run with another jumper. Toronto looked utterly dispirited and discombobulated by the Heat’s physical play, as well as Miami’s ability to hit from beyond the arc. The body language wasn’t great, and down eventually by 17, it looked like Toronto might be about to wear their second straight blow-out.
Enter Fred VanVleet. The diminutive guard hit back-to-back triples to keep Toronto from losing touch, and with Whiteside riding the pine, the Raps again began to chip away. A Pascal Siakam coast-to-coast, a Leonard three, followed by a twisting and one, and Danny Green hitting a triple (quietly with 15 at that point), and the Raps had comeback to within three.
After that the two teams were locked in a death match — with neither team able to pull ahead by more than six. The key for the Raps keeping the game close, was Nick Nurse deciding to trust his bench. After a gassed Leonard missed a jumper with time running out in the third, Nurse gave his second unit a chance to win, or lose, the game.
And the Raps bench responded. Norm Powell and Wright, in particular were active on both ends of the floor. The best Powell sequence saw him tip a rebound away from Heat forward Kelly Olynyk, then take a pass and race down court where he showed a poise Raps fans wish was habit, in finding a cutting Wright for a beautiful reverse lay-up.
Overall, the Raps bench played the Heat to a draw without Leonard on the floor — partially due to the fact that Nurse decided to trust them to fight through some choppy stretches.
When Leonard checked back in with six minutes the Raps one, but Kawhi hit a three to put Toronto back on top (on a bizarre play that saw him stop playing after a non-call when Winslow hammered him in the post).
After a Tyler Johnson floater tied it at 93, the Raps offense would show off it’s worst crunch-time impulses when Leonard pounded the air out of the ball before missing a heavily contested shot. The Heat would continue on an 8-0 run, going up 99-93.
But Toronto would dig deep. Siakam went coast-to-coast to set up VanVleet’s fourth triple, and then a moment later the Cameroonian big man would gobble up a deflected pass and go coast-to-coast again, this time for the and-one to tie the game at 99.
Leonard kept coming, but Wade would hit his only three of the game and Winslow put the finishing touches on his own monster game (21-4-2), to give the Heat a one-point lead. 104-103.
It was then that Leonard, Nurse and the Raps showed the growth they have undergone. With the Heat doubling Leonard, he calmly made a simple bounce pass to Ibaka, who flipped it to Green for the game winning triple.
The Heat had a final chance, but Green played fantastic defense on Wade and Jason Richardson’s desperate heave hit iron,
It wasn’t pretty, but with the Raps riding an eight game stretch of having at least one of Kyle Lowry and Leonard out, it was needed.
The Raps have one more game left in their awful month, a road date with Orlando, and despite all the injuries, drama, and lousy three-point shooting, Toronto fans have to give their home team credit. With very rare exceptions, Toronto keeps on coming, even when like tonight, the game looks done.