As with every game between the Raptors and the Heat, there was an air of ugliness to the proceedings on Wednesday night. (And we’re not just talking about Miami’s pink-blue gradient uniform.) Both teams, even through various reformations over the years — or short-handed, as the case was for Miami without Jimmy Butler — these two squads find ways to bring out both the best and worst in each other. That’s led to some out-and-out slugfests over the years, and tonight’s contest in Tampa was no different.
But this is the new NBA, where much of the game is determined by who can take and make the most three-pointers across 48 minutes. It also means no lead is safe as teams can shoot themselves into and out of any game. For the Raptors, in particular, the three-ball has often been their salvation, getting them out of trouble when nothing else was working — particularly against a zone defense. The Heat clearly knew this to be the case too, so they pressured the Raptors via a zone — and just straight-up man-to-man effort — to push them out of what they wanted to do before laying Toronto out with an 111-102 loss.
In truth, the ugliness here seemed to refract back and forth for much of the game, as if both teams were taking turns looking into a funhouse mirror in the early going. The first quarter saw Toronto ease into the frame, with only Kyle Lowry playing with much urgency. (The broadcast noted he was just 22 points away from 10,000 as a Raptor, but Lowry was unable to bridge that gap on the night.) Toronto’s leader paced the team with seven quick points in that quarter while bringing energy as per usual. Lowry looked to attack advantages too, going at Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, relatively untested pro players. Lowry knows he’s got the edge there, and it was once again that spirit the Raptors needed to get going.
Little did we know that those shots in the first would be the last buckets Lowry would get in the game though. As he faded, the rest of the Raptors tried to step it up, but a 16-4 run by the Heat from the first to the second quarter had them behind for much of the first half. The teams even traded 8-0 runs in the second quarter, illustrating both how evenly they were matched and how difficult it would be for the Raptors to come close to a win. For every bucket, say, Fred VanVleet made — who led the team with 24 points on 7-of-18 shooting — there was Miami’s Kendrick Nunn, who led all scorers with 32, making one of his own. (Credit to the officials here for noticing that one of Duncan Robinson’s many threes was taken with his foot just out-of-bounds; it was a boon to the Raptors in that moment.)
Still, the Raptors took a two-point lead into half-time thanks in part to the three-point shooting that hadn’t abandoned them yet. But then the ugliness gradually started to show up. This time: endless fouls back and forth in the third quarter, and a plethora of missed shots to complement all that disrupted play. OG Anunoby wasn’t quite affected by it though. He continued his tear from three, dropping in 4-of-8 threes in the game, for a total of 18 points to go with his seven rebounds and three assists. Anunoby’s efforts with the ball in his hands were not quite as effective — save for some extra-power moves right at the rim — but he was doing what he could regardless. OG alone wasn’t going to tighten Toronto’s defense against the Heat machine once it got humming.
And so another 8-0 run put the Heat back in front in the third quarter. It was Chris Boucher who broke that one with a three. But this was a quieter game for the Raptors’ latest saviour, as Boucher scored a more modest eight points and grabbed one board, showing some of his limitations against the larger and more disciplined Miami frontline. He also played fewer minutes because Aron Baynes (and Terence Davis) got some extended run in this one. For his part, Baynes looked pretty solid on defense for Toronto — sticking with the scheme and bodying Bam Adebayo when the job called for it. On offense, Baynes was still very much a non-factor, though he did drain his fourth triple of the season in his 13 minutes. So, yeah, progress. (Davis, meanwhile, had a spry 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting.)
The Raptors needed that production from wherever they could get it because Pascal Siakam was mostly absent in the third after just eight points in the first half. Now, this may be because he looked to have hurt his groin early from an awkward landing after a dunk attempt. But Siakam didn’t start the game particularly sharp either. His production on the night: 18 points, six rebounds, two assists, 7-for-15 from the field, 0-for-3 from deep — and the Raptors entering the fourth down by five points. That vibe sums up much of the final frame as Toronto went without a bucket for almost six minutes, gradually ceding a bigger and bigger lead to the Heat.
Despite a too-late flurry of pressing defense, there was no miracle comeback here for Toronto. But, come on, we knew that was likely to be the case. The Raptors are now 5-9 on the season and it feels like they’ve taken a step or two back after having made what felt like the first real stride of the season. Is there a solution here?