As far as Raptors-Heat games go, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Both teams scored over 100! Both teams shot over 45%!
Much like Tuesday’s matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors fought hard, but a few slow rotations and a few missed open looks — and Jimmy freakin’ Butler — meant they couldn’t get over the hump.
1. It’s Good to Be Back…
I’ll refrain from using the Iron Man 2 gif again but it was great to see a well-rested Kyle Lowry out there, wasn’t it? Sure, he had a couple tough turnovers but 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting, with eight assists and seven boards, is pretty great for the first game back from injury.
He also flashed some of signature defensive chops in the post, stymying Jimmy Butler down low a couple of times. Butler really should know better!
With Lowry healthy, hopefully the Raptors will get a good run of games in with the full squad, and can finally settle on a decent rotation (more on this below).
2. … Or Not
Speaking of comebacks, the Raptors avoided Jimmy Butler in their two earlier matchups with the Heat, but he more than made up for those absences last night. He’s tortured the Raptors for years (the 40-point second half, the 10 straight points in OT, I don’t need to run down the greatest hits for you) and last night he scored 27 points (and added 10 assists and eight rebounds) on 21 possessions.
And in the fourth? All he did was score 12 straight Heat points at one point, and pick up the picture-perfect assist on Bam Adebayo’s dagger floater with 35 seconds to go.
It’s probably a good thing that the Raptors have never faced Butler in the playoffs. If the Raptors had managed to beat Boston in the second round last year and then played the Heat, Jimmy would have snatched our souls away for sure.
(Author’s note: Thank you to the reader who e-mailed me to remind me that the Raptors have, in fact, faced Jimmy Butler in the playoffs, and he of course tied Game 7 against Philly right before Kawhi Leonard hit the four-bouncer. I chalk this error up to my brain being stunned by the fact that a Heat-Raptors game was not completely unwatchable.)
3. Rotation Madness
A fully healthy Raptors squad, playing their best (small) starting lineup, should have eliminated the need for the Fred VanVleet + bench units that have looked especially poor the past few weeks.
And yet… there they were again! To be fair, statistically, these units have mostly held their own, but it doesn’t generally look pretty, and last night was no exception; the unit needed four bailout three-pointers, including a 30-foot VanVleet bomb, to keep pace with the Heat in the first quarter.
But it got worse from there. The second quarter saw a bench-heavy unit with both Patrick McCaw and Stanley Johnson, which went as well as you’d expect.
Wonder what adjustments the Raptors can expect to make in the second half.— Daniel Hackett (@dhackett1565) February 25, 2021
They played Stan and McCaw together for 3 minutes, lost those minutes by 11 points, and trail by 10.
I can think of one adjustment.
I’m OK with getting McCaw some run to see what he’s got, and I still think Stanley has utility as a backup small-ball five, but there’s no universe in which they should be sharing the floor. And what happened to DeAndre’ Bembry, who only played five minutes? Why did Chris Boucher only get 18?
Things got really crazy in the fourth, when the Raptors opened with Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, Aron Baynes, OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry, a group that had zero minutes together prior to last night. That’s the group you want out there for 3.5 minutes in the final quarter of a close game? (I mean, maybe; the group was +3!) Davis closed the game with the starters, in place of Pascal Siakam, who was benched for the entire quarter.
I get that it was the second night of a back-to-back and that there were some tired legs, but those are just some truly weird lineup choices.
I can’t believe I’m writing about Matt Thomas for the second day in a row, but, he played again last night! Unfortunately, he played… not poorly, but somewhat invisibly.
He was out there for six minutes but you might not have noticed, since he tallied zero points on zero shots, didn’t grab a rebound or pick up a foul or commit a turnover. He notched a single assist, the only thing keeping him from joining the “trillionaire club” (when a player comes in the game, plays one minute or more but doesn’t acquire a single stat on the box score: just a whole bunch of zeroes).
I wrote about Matt’s slow release on Tuesday, so I won’t get into it again here, but if he’s not scoring… what the heck is he doing out there? How’s Terence Davis getting off six shots and Thomas isn’t getting one?
5. The Little Things
The Raptors shot better from the field and the three-point line than the Heat last night, yet still came up short. Why? Rebounding and live ball turnovers.
The Heat secured 11 offensive boards last night (including two critical ones in the final minute as the Raptors mounted yet another late comeback attempt), leading to 15 second-chance points (the Raptors had five). They also scored 21 points off of 16 Raptors turnovers (compared to 10 Raptors points off of 11 Heat turnovers), and they got to the line 29 times to the Raptors’ 17.
Some of that is tired legs, some of it is a size disadvantage, but a lot of it is just plain ol’ hustle. We can laugh and mock the incessant “Heat culture” chatter, but they do walk the talk!
The Raptors close out the first half of the schedule with four very winnable games against Houston, Chicago, Detroit and Boston (heh), followed by four very winnable games post-All-Star against Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago and Detroit. These past two losses sting, but the Raptors are playing better overall and this is a stretch that could propel them back into contention for a top-four seed.