You know you’re always in for a fight with the try-hard Miami Heat and, playing on the road right after Christmas, without Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, it looked like the Raptors just didn’t have it last night. But a dominant third quarter gave way to a highly entertaining fourth, where Danny Green finally buried the Heat with a game-winning three-pointer with 22 seconds to go.
The Casual Dominance of Hassan Whiteside was... Disconcerting
Without Jonas Valanciunas to contend with, and facing down a rusty Serge Ibaka (starting after a 10-day layoff), Hassan Whiteside completely dismantled the Raptors in the first quarter last night. Ibaka was a step slow and couldn’t keep Whiteside out of the paint, and didn’t have the energy to go at him at the other end. Nick Nurse went to Greg Monroe, and while Monroe at least made Whiteside work by taking it to him offensively, he too was no match for Whiteside on defense.
Whiteside was 5-of-7 for 10 points in the quarter, with four boards; meanwhile the Heat racked up 20 points (of their 27) in the paint.
Looking at the Miami roster, you can’t say there are a whole lot of threats there. Whiteside is pretty much the only advantage Miami has over Toronto right now, without Valanciunas. And Miami used him to great effect... which made me feel pretty dirty.
there’s no greater shame than being a team that makes Whiteside look good— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) December 27, 2018
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thankfully, there aren’t too many teams who can feast on the Raptors while Valanciunas recovers, and the Raptors don’t play Miami again until March.
Tired Legs Early, Extra Energy Late
When Whiteside picked up a first quarter rebound, took it coast-to-coast, spun, and dunked all over Ibaka, you knew the Raptors’ heads weren’t quite in it. If they couldn’t even be bothered to pick up a slow-footed, non-ballhandling player like Whiteside in transition, it seemed like it was gonna be a long night. Shortly thereafter, Derrick Jones Jr. unleashed a monster slam, then Bam Adebayo took a lob from Tyler Johnson and rocked the rim as well.
Meanwhile the Raptors were walking the ball up and launching deep threes without making a single pass.
Thankfully the team must have shotgunned some espresso at halftime, and it finally kicked in with about eight minutes to go in the third quarter. Trailing 67-50, the Raptors outscored Miami 31-12 the rest of the quarter to take a 2-point lead into the fourth.
Delon Wright to the Cup
I really liked Delon Wright’s game last night. He always seems to get up for Miami games — his long relationship with Dwyane Wade is well-known — and his aggressive drives and ability to get to the rim were critical last night in breaking down Miami’s defense. Wright has been a bit lost in the Raptors depth this season; his numbers are all down from the career bests he set across the board last season, including his minutes.
At times I’ve been critical of Nick Nurse’s usage of Wright and Fred VanVleet, as Nurse seems to have a lot of trust in VanVleet as a ballhandler, while II’d still like to see Wright as a primary ballhandler and VanVleet more off-ball. I’m not sure what the logic is behind the drop in Wright’s minutes or the shift in his role, but if he continues to make winning plays like last night, hopefully the course will reverse.
Game of Zones
Tip o’the hat to Bleacher Report for the subheader, but it’s not often you see two teams play as much zone in a single game as these two played last night. It worked for Miami in the first half, as the Raptors (once again) were ice cold from distance; it worked for Toronto in the second half, as it helped take away Whiteside’s dominance.
This is, to my recollection, the third time Toronto’s zone has sparked a comeback — last month against Memphis, last week against Indiana, and last night. Given the length and lateral quickness of the Raptors’ best defenders, including Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, a zone does make sense as a defensive strategy so it’s neat to see it being used to such good effect. But the Raptors are probably using it just the right amount — as change of pace, to mix things up a little — any more, and good teams will figure out how to beat it.
Are we in the Dog Days of the Season Already?
Normally in mid-January through mid-February, the season tends to start dragging and the games turn in to slogs, the players look lethargic,
That’s the feeling I had tuning into last night’s game — and seeing as how it’s only December it was an unusual feeling. Some of it was Christmas hangover (metaphorically!) and some of it was the opponent — I don’t generally find Miami particularly entertaining to watch.
But mostly I think it was to do with the Raptors. First, we all know this team will be measured by their postseason play. Regular seasons are old news, you know? Secondly, win or lose, we aren’t learning a whole lot about who this team is or what they might do in the postseason as they’re beset by injuries. To wit:
Unfortunately, a week later and it looks like we're still going to get to expand the sample here of Lowry & Leonard apart. If Lowry's out (he's doubtful), would make 21 games together and 15 with only one or the other.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 26, 2018
Even when healthy, we keep caveating things by saying the team is still learning one another and figuring out the chemistry and so on.
Perhaps I’m just being impatient. But I really want to see what this fully-healthy, used-to-playing-with-one-another, Raptors squad can do.
The Raptors close out their Florida trip with a visit to Orlando on Friday; hopefully, that one features a quicker start and won’t require Danny Green to hit another game-winner!