Going into this game, comparisons between the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat have been plentiful. They both have a penchant for player development and maintain a strong organizational culture from top to bottom. They also both have identities of teams that can play tough, grind out games, and ultimately, win ugly.
To call that game ugly, however, would be akin to calling Usain Bolt “a pretty good runner.” This was not a game for fans of the high-octane offenses that characterize the modern NBA. Instead, this game put both teams in a time machine back to a simpler time, when the terms analytics and efficiency belonged only on Wall Street, as the Toronto Raptors lost to the Miami Heat 84-76 in the second lowest scoring game of the 2019-20 NBA season.
Serge Ibaka led the Raptors in scoring with a fittingly ugly 19 points and 10 rebounds, and Kyle Lowry had his moments on his offense but only finished with 15 on an unsightly 4-for-16 from the field. The Heat were buoyed by stretches of hot shooting from Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro in the second and fourth quarters, respectively, as both netted 13 points. Breakout centre Bam Adebayo was a steady presence for Miami as well, with a hyper-efficient 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting, to go with 14 rebounds and his customary stellar defense.
Prior to the game, a touching tribute to David Stern, the former commissioner of the NBA, was shown in the stadium, followed by a moment of silence. Stern passed away yesterday, on January 1st, at the age of 77. Much has been written about Stern since his passing, so I’ll leave that largely to those who have taken the time to give him the proper credit. I will, however, say that Stern deserves significant credit for getting the league to the point that is at today.
After a shake-up to the starting lineup in the most recent game, which saw Rondae Hollis-Jefferson take the place of OG Anunoby, Nick Nurse went back to Anunoby. This returned the starting lineup back to the consistent iteration. Even with Anunoby in the lineup, it was clear from the start of the game that the size of the Heat would be tough to match with the Raptors trotting out three guards as starters. The Heat exploited this advantage by attacking the paint early and making it a significant source of their offense in the first few minutes.
The Raptors hung tough, however, and quieted the Miami offense as the quarter rolled on. On offense, Fred VanVleet came out in attack mode, getting seven of the first nine points for the Raptors. Following a three-pointer, he picked the pocket of Duncan Robinson and turned it into a layup, highlighting a solo mini-run by VanVleet. Unfortunately, those seven would be his only points of the night.
Unsurprisingly, given the characteristics of these two teams, this was an ugly, gritty first quarter where neither team could muster consistent offense. The Heat busted out a zone defense, which the Raptors struggled to solve. The Heat would stick with this zone for the bulk of the game, as the Raptors failed to find a meaningful solution. On the other end, the Raptors just played their brand physical, intense defense and kept Miami at bay. The Raptors took a slight edge in this quarter, leading 20-18 after one.
Both teams evidently agreed to continue playing in the 1990s prior to the second quarter, and for the rest of the game for that matter. Goran Dragic and Lowry hit back-to-back threes early in the period, but that sort of offense would be more of an outlier than a sign of things to come for the game. Buckets in the half court were few and far between for either team, although Miami got a big spark from Dragic off the bench, who had three 3-pointers in the second on his way to 13 points in the quarter.
Dragic’s burst helped get the Miami lead as large as 8 in the second, but the Raptors closed the gap to finish the half. A buzzer-beating three by OG Anunoby cut the Heat’s lead in half. Going into the third, the Raptors trailed 42-39.
The third quarter saw little improvement offensively by either team. The Raptors were given a scare when Kyle Lowry limped off the floor early in the third, but a nationwide sigh of relief was breathed when he returned to the court after a timeout. The Raptors need Lowry in this game, as he had been the Raptors’ best source of offense up to this point and was doing an admirable job guarding Heat superstar Jimmy Butler, even though he was at a serious size disadvantage.
The third quarter ended with the Heat maintaining their 3-point lead, as the score sat at 63-60. If the score wasn’t indicative enough of how difficult buckets were to come by, a three-pointer by Heat rookie Tyler Herro, and the reaction around it, further cemented that notion. The crowd erupted like it was a go-ahead shot in the dying seconds of a game, and it suddenly made a tie game feel like Miami had a significant lead.
Herro carried that momentum into the fourth, scoring the Heat’s first eight points of the quarter. A layup by Bam Adebayo after Chris Boucher briefly fell asleep on defense extended the Heat lead to nine. From that point, the Raptors simply could not string together enough positive plays in a row to get back in this game. Any semblance of a comeback was dispelled by a turnover, a missed shot, or a basket by the Heat as the clock eventually dwindled.
Any game against the Heat is tough. Shooting 6-for-42 from three doesn’t help. On the bright side, Kyle Lowry’s injury was not serious. The team can also point to the players missing as indications of how different the game could have gone, but also how badly the Raptors need them back.