Part two of the schedule dropped today, and it does not include any meetings with the Miami Heat. This is a good thing.
Toronto lost to the Heat on Wednesday in the way they typically lose to the Heat. There were elbows, there were clutch Jimmy Butler buckets in crunch time, and there was a seemingly impenetrable zone defense in the Raptors’ way for more than half of the game. The Raps battled through such obstacles nobly for long stretches, as they do in these types of games. But some poorly-timed, wretched possessions in the fourth quarter, some weak sauce defensive rebounding, and a complete write off of an evening for Pascal Siakam left Toronto on the wrong end of a 116-108 final score.
They didn’t lose this one through any fault of Kyle Lowry, that’s for damn sure. Returning after missing the last four-plus games with a thumb injury, Lowry quickly reminded onlookers that he is still in fact the best player on the team. Tonight that was true by several orders of magnitude. After leading the team with 17 first half points, he proceeded to power a quick 10-0 run to open the second half to pull the Raps even at 66-66. From that moment in the third on, this game was an exercising in just barely hanging on to a chance at a stolen win.
Siakam had what was probably his worst game of the season. Bothered by the array of limbs the Heat cloaked him in any time he drove, Siakam made just one shot in six attempts — a three — and quickly piled up four first-half fouls. After more or less drifting through the first few minutes of the third, Siakam hit the bench stuck on five points, two boards and four assists in 24 minutes — a total he would not add to, even as the game was well within Toronto’s reach during crunch time. Instead of going back to his struggling star, Nick Nurse concluded a night of bizarre lineup juggling (please, stop with the Fred plus four bench guy looks) with Chris Boucher in Siakam’s place alongside the small-ball starters for a time, before a perplexing swapping in of Terence Davis to close the final four and a half minutes.
Struggles or not, Siakam probably should have gotten the call, considering that he’s Pascal freaking Siakam. That said, the choice to bench him was defensible if you squint. He clearly didn’t have it, and played 42 extremely hard minutes against the Sixers less than 24 hours prior. At the tail end of a tiresome and wildly successful five games / seven nights stretch, maybe Siakam getting a chill night isn’t the worst thing in the long run.
What truly did the Raptors in on Wednesday wasn’t the off night for one of its best player as much as it was that goddamned Miami zone. Everyone in the world knew the Heat would bust it out tonight, and yet the Raptors still seemed surprised by it.
Their struggles with the zone weren’t as pronounced as the have been in the past, I’ll give them that. They shot it well from three (20-of-44), and were able to string together loads of mini-runs to pull it back within striking distance. It was those moments where they stood on the precipice of snatching a lead where their dissection of the Heat’s zone failed them. Those screw-ups took many forms, including stagnant, water polo ass positions relegated to the perimeter, or dangerous passes into the clutches of Jimmy Butler, who was sure to punish each of those mistakes with the daddy energy Raptors fans have surely come to expect (and maybe even begrudgingly respect) from him.
If there’s something good to be gleaned from Toronto’s attempts to pick apart Miami on Wednesday, it’s that small-ball five OG Anunoby looks to be a budding zone-busting wiz. You’d think that if the Raptors were to come up against Miami in a series, they’d eventually be able to solve the junk Erik Spoelstra likes to throw out against them; OG’s work in the middle of the floor as a passer, driver, and finisher is one of the most glaring reasons for optimism on that front.
Good times almost certainly lie ahead for this team, despite their most recent result. The past week and a bit have proven Toronto belongs in the East’s upper middle class, as they finally began to match their sound process with good results. Health seems to be with them, too, for now. And the schedule released Wednesday afternoon projects a plush March schedule during which the team should be able to pile up wins.
Even if this nonsensical season sees the Raptors struggle to string together long stretches of success as it as to this point, they’ll surely find solace in knowing they won’t see the Heat until May at the earliest. And if that next meeting gets pushed to the 2021-22 season, I don’t think anyone will complain.