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On career afternoon for Fred VanVleet, Raptors beat Heat 107-103

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Forging a new career-high of 36 points, the Raptors guard bet on himself in a game where buckets were hard to come by.

Toronto Raptors v Miami Heat Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

There’s always a frustrating rhythm when the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat play. It’s both reassuring and maddening that a pandemic and a bubble can’t do anything to change that.

It reached its zenith back in 2016 when the two teams met in the Eastern Conference semifinal, a slugfest of a series that may have turned some people off of basketball entirely. It was both defence-oriented and a total mess, with players grinding out baskets in order to put themselves ahead.

We’re four years on from that, and the faces have changed significantly, but the basketball that comes when you pair a top tier defensive team (the Raptors) and Heat Culture™, you’re sure to have a chess match on your hands.

In games like these, you just need somebody to get you points when offensive sets slow down. On Monday afternoon, that somebody was Fred VanVleet for the Raptors. The 6’1” guard had the best scoring game of his career — 36 points — which included seven threes, 13 free throws, along with five rebounds and four assists. With Miami’s top defenders focused elsewhere, as Bam Adebayo guarded Pascal Siakam and Jimmy Butler on Kyle LowryVanVleet was able to find space and opportunity against the Heat’s otherwise youthful backcourt.

VanVleet was also influential on the other end, making the key stop in the game. With the Raptors up two and just seven seconds left, he strong-armed the ball away from Goran Dragic to get possession back, allowing Toronto to ice the game with free throws.

The result was just good enough to get Toronto the win, as they took the game 107-103 and improved to 2-0 in the restart — their sixth straight win overall. They move to four games ahead of the Boston Celtics in the East’s second seed, 6.5 up on Miami.

As expected in a game coached by Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra, there were all sorts of interesting subplots going on in this one. Overall, Toronto’s schemes and execution did an excellent job slowing down Miami’s starting lineup. Holding Adebayo to 5-for-9 and Butler to 4-for-9 (26 points combined) can be taken as a win when you consider how those two rolled through Denver earlier in the weekend. The focus on those two left opportunities for others, though, namely when the Heat’s bench came into play.

Both Kelly Olynyk and Goran Dragic were ultimately the beneficiaries. Dragic in particular had a roll back the clock type performance, summoning all the scoring ability (and annoyances) that Raptors fans had to deal with back in 2016. His 25 points led Miami and he was a +15 in the ball game. Dragic did all the out-of-the-box-score stuff he’s known for too, including a trip of OG Anunoby in transition that was controversially held up as a common foul on review.

Olynyk, meanwhile, was this game’s “open man” against the Raptors defence, which usually schemes to choose which opponent they want to let chuck. Though the Canadian forward was ultimately a good choice — his 4-for-11 line from distance is something you can live with — he did make some timely shots for Miami, especially late in the game when they drove down a double-digit Raptors lead.

The Raptors were able to build that lead in the third quarter after a close first half. VanVleet scored 18 of his 36 in the period, as Toronto also got into a rhythm defensively and was able to get to the charity stripe. As their biggest lead of the game stretched to 17 at the 7:02 mark, Jimmy Butler was able to chip into things before the period buzzer — scoring four free throws and setting up a critical Olynyk three that brought Toronto’s lead down to seven. Both teams were letting it fly overall, as 32 of the Raptors’ 67 shots came behind the line; 45 of 87 for Miami.

In the fourth, early threes from Jae Crowder and Dragic tied the game and set up a tight finish. Kyle Lowry made his presence felt here, following up a dominant performance against the Lakers on Saturday, by controlling the tempo. His setup of Serge Ibaka for a dunk at the 6:11 mark was a critical basket, as it capped a 9-0 run for Toronto which saw them take the lead back from the Heat.

Lowry would finish with 14 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and a steal in 35 minutes. Pascal Siakam also had a good scoring performance, with 22 points — 13 of those coming in the opening quarter.

A tough schedule for Toronto continues on Wednesday, as they face Orlando in a potential first round preview in the East.