It’s an imperfect comparison, but the Heat are something like the Bizarro version of the Raptors. Both have annoyingly relentless point guards, skilled swing men (even if one is well on the downside of his career), lumbering centres, ultra green light shooters, and a surfeit of kinetic young players. Both teams play hard, fast, and, for the most part, with discipline — and despite some ugly games score-wise, they tend to bring out the best (or worst?) in each other. That Toronto won Tuesday night’s contest 115-112 doesn’t mean they’ll win next time, or vice versa. They did just barely manage to win tonight after all.
“We know we’ve gotta close the game better, we know we’ve gotta be better down the stretch,” said Fred VanVleet, whose 10 points (and 2-of-3 from deep shooting) helped steady the Raptors for a time. “We’ll look at the film and see the areas where we can improve and get better. I thought we just got on our heels a little bit and they were aggressive at the same time, and that’s never a good combination. We’ll take the win, obviously, but we need to keep growing and getting better.”
In fairness, the Raptors and Heat got off to a back-and-forth start, and it definitely felt like it would be one of those games throughout. You remember the 2016 Playoffs as well as I do, so you know what I mean — rough and tumble, ugly shooting, runs (15-3 for the Heat at one point), counter-runs (18-4 for Toronto later on), the whole gamut of emotions. Through the first half it was Kyle Lowry leading the way for Toronto, counterpunched by — who else? — Goran Dragic (and with a touch of the returned Dwyane Wade). The Raptors went up two at the break after one of the more ridiculous 3s of Lowry’s career — after an inspiring 2-for-1 sequence — and it felt like momentum was starting to shift in Toronto’s favour.
Sometimes you just gotta shoot your shot pic.twitter.com/W35mYuPfJC— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 14, 2018
The third quarter did little to disprove that thesis. Despite an explosion from Dragic, whose 16 points in the frame kept the Heat in it, the Raptors began to pull away. They were led by an outburst from DeMar DeRozan, who went off for 19 points in the quarter on 8-of-12 shooting. Coupled with Serge Ibaka suddenly coming alive for seven points in a row, and some energy from Toronto’s bench, the Raptors lead got up to 17 points after that aforementioned 18-4 run. It felt like it could be an easy win for the home team — except of course, this is the Bizarro world. As the fourth went on, the win started to feel like a loss.
The game’s final frame saw a surge from the Heat as their balanced attack (seven different players scored) was enough to bring Miami back to within two points. Lowry and DeRozan went 1-for-8 in the frame, and if not for some subtle heroics from Delon Wright, who pitched in eight of the team’s 17 points in the quarter, we might be talking about this game very differently right now. For what it’s worth, Lowry finished the game with 22 points, eight assists, and four rebounds; DeRozan managed 27 and four assists; Ibaka got up to 14 and 10. It was altogether just enough. “Continue to grow, continue to understand that games are never over,” said Lowry afterwards. “Games are always going to go down to the wire.”
We can chalk the close call up to the Heat’s defensive pressure, which was significant, but it did feel like the Raptors just could not, or would not, see the successful plays they needed to make down the stretch. They missed shots (17-of-22 of them, to be clear), but they were also making it extra hard for themselves to find easy ones to take, reverting to a more predictable offensive attack once again. It was frustrating to watch as the Heat sliced and diced their way back into the game. And as we look to the future, it was worrisome for the same old reasons.
“I’m upset, even though we won because I know, I know what’s coming around the corner,” said coach Dwane Casey in a quick post-game presser before he was to jump on the flight to Chicago for the Raptors’ last game before the All-Star break. “Like you’re going down a dark alley, here comes a group of guys with a baseball bat and you say, ‘Oh, hey, where’s the baseball game?’ It’s 12 o’clock at night, you know what’s coming around the corner.
“Again, for us, we’ve got to be attention to detail, closing out games and not getting hit over the head with a bat at 12 o’clock at night.”