Raptors 103, Heat 120 – Box

At least the bar scene in Miami is good, not that the M.A.S.H. unit has much to celebrate after losing a seventh straight game, this time to the Miami Heat.

No Dwyane Wade? No Chris Bosh? No problem.

With the Heat lacking two of the three Heatles, we were treated to a reminder of what Pre-Decision LeBron looked like. It was a thoroughly dominating and exciting performance to watch; a true reminder of what the best player in the world looks like when he turns it up to that gear that so few have. His final line of 38-11-6 (14/29 shooting) somehow doesn’t quite illustrate the totality of his dominance. The Heat had a nice second quarter run with him on the bench while Mike Miller went H.A.M., but except for those seven minutes everything started and ended with James.

Playing primarily at power forward for the night, LeBron displayed a post game years in the hiding. His back-down moves, turn-arounds, and ability to get to the rim from any position were a joy to watch, even if they might need an asterisk due to the quality of the defensive opponent. Later, when James went perimeter-oriented, his unparalleled slashing ability was on full display. James showed he can be one of the best in the world playing either part in the pick-and-roll game, handling the rock or as the dive man, and if I were Erik Spoelstra I would be making greater use of these skills when Bosh and Wade return.

It’s scary to think how good this team is at its peak. They just won 20 of 21 before a four-game, injury-induced skid, and LeBron and Wade have yet to fully synergize in the half-court game. I know we all have a grudge with Chris Bosh, but his presence and importance can’t be ignored for this team either, even if they didn’t seem to miss him tonight with LeBron assuming the post scoring.

It was a thoroughly dominant performance, on a night when the Heat lineup sounded more like a lottery lineup (they started Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, James Jones, and the Il Na Na).

Mike Miller enjoyed a great night in support of James. Hopefully for him and the Heat, it’s the breakout he needed after suffering through his first 10 games back from a thumb injury. Just how big was Miller’s night? Well, in 121 minutes coming into tonight, Miller had scored 15 points total. He scored 19 in the first seven minutes of the second quarter alone, en route to a 32-and-10 effort (on 12/20 shooting, 6/11 from long range). A couple of those misses appeared to be heat-checks as well. I like Mike Miller, but it’s unfortunate that the Raptors play King Maker so often.

Okay, I get that this is a Raptors blog and not a Heat one. And I know we’ve been watching LeBron do this for almost a decade now. But I think a few hundred words is a small pittance to pay in appreciation of that performance. Yes, quality of opposition must be kept in mind, as the Raptors were playing their fifth game in eight nights, with a rotation so thin that they will probably re-sign Sundaita Gaines, and I hardly disagree with it (but seriously, Sam Cassell’s lookalike has not looked good). They played eight men, and one (Gaines) played just over five minutes.

So it’s not like the Raptors had much of a chance. I thought maybe they’d be inspired from the start from the 40-point drudging at the hands of the Magic on Friday, but it was actually the second half that kept the final score semi-respectable, perhaps out of desperation as another deficit was growing into the 30-point range.

It wasn’t all bad in Raptorland. While they were outrebounded 42-33 and the defense was more or less atrocious – the Heat shot 53% and went 16-of-26 on three-pointers, the majority of which were wide open – the Raptors showed spirit in clawing back early in the fourth. The lead got as small as seven before Jose Calderon rolled his ankle, allowing Mario Chalmers to hit an open three and start a late Heat rally to pull away.

After an awful first half in which the team had just FOUR assists to seven turnovers, Calderon found himself and got the offense into a strong second half flow. The team’s 16 second-half assists accompanied just four turnovers, and the shooting percentage climbed from 33% to 47% cumulative. You can discount the effort by claiming garbage time, which I couldn’t argue, but this hobbled and exhausted unit could have folded at halftime and really let things get ugly. This is the NBA, and moral victories are more or less nonexistent but this team has had no choice but to learn and grow on the job over the past few weeks.

For DeMar DeRozan, this fact rings especially true. DeMar has been a revelation in January, averaging 19 points per contest and posting some of his career-best games. Tonight was another defining performance, as DeRozan continually attacked the basket. He finished with 30 points on 13-of-25 shooting, and his four free throw attempts were not for lack of trying. The biggest change I’ve witnessed in DeMar’s game throughout the season is nothing technical, but mental – DeRozan no longer appears too timid to demand the ball, and he no longer avoids making plays after a miscue. Last year and earlier this season, I lamented that DeRozan would shy away from his offense when he made a bad play or two or three, and as the team flounders I believe he is realizing just how needed his scoring and development are.

I know the deeper stats do not support DeRozan as being at a high level (yet). His PER has hardly increased from last year (12.88 from 12.58, 35th among shooting guards), and his true shooting percentage has actually fallen. His five free throw attempts per game are probably too low and haven’t grown much with his usage, and his rebounding and assist numbers are such that you’re only looking at the points column in the boxscore. Still, DeRozan averaging 19 points a night in January without the assistance of a three-point shot is impressive.

To take the next step, DeMar is going to have to find ways to draw contact at the rim – he is a master at avoiding contact, which is a skill of its own but should be balanced with drawing contact. He’ll also need a three-point shot eventually, as he’s 6-for-39 for his career, and you really can’t be considered an elite wing scorer without one. Either or both of these things will improve his true shooting percentage. He’ll also need to improve his rebounding (41st among shooting guards) and assists (59th), but my point here is more about his growth as a scorer. His scoring increases have been largely volume-based, yes, but he’s not accomplishing it at a less efficient clip or at a detriment to the team.

On a semi-related side note, I couldn’t be happier that DeRozan is paired with Darryl Dawkins for the Dunk Contest, as Dawkins is the king of naming dunks, something that has been missing from the contest. Dwight Howard is apparently also in DeMar’s corner, and the crowd will likely be split in favor of Griffin (the Clipper) and DeRozan (the hometown player).

His counterpart in scoring, Andrea Bargnani, struggled through an up-and-down night. Coming in, he was playing some of his worst basketball of the season, shooting just 25.5% over the past three games. He started out the game attacking and being aggressive but soon fell into his bad habit of settling for low-quality jump shots. A 10-of-24 night isn’t horrible for 28 points, but his lulls in the second and fourth quarters were a part of large Miami runs. I don’t feel the need to pile on Bargs even further, as the bus has been backed over him more than a few times lately. His rebound total (four) was almost as ugly as his defense, which we’re used to, so it was good to see him get some semblance of his stroke back, even if it did vanish again late.

Elsewhere, Jose Calderon had a great second half, especially by comparison to his first. He finished with yet another double-digit assist night (13) and has the fourth highest assist average in the NBA for the month of January. Ed Davis did a good job on the boards but didn’t really try to exploit his quickness advantage against some of the more elderly Heat bigs. Amir Johnson did his usual, grabbing offensive rebounds and getting hustle baskets.

Really, there wasn’t much to expect from the Raptors tonight. They’re playing poorly, they’re short on healthy bodies, and they’re at the end of a long roadtrip. The Heat, while without two megastars, were otherwise well-rested and have the best basketball player alive.

The Raptors return home tomorrow with an off-day before hosting Memphis on Monday night. If you plan on watching the game, please be advised that I’m covering it and the Raptors are still winless on the year when I cover a game. I apologize in advance.

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