LeBron James, John Salmons, Jonas Valanciunas

Heat 93, Raptors 83 – Box

Kyle Lowry Injured
Let’s start here: Kyle Lowry injured his left knee in the second quarter of Monday night’s game against the Miami Heat.

Chasing an offensive rebound, Lowry collided with LeBron James, who is built like a brick shithouse. At first it looked as if Lowry may have hurt his head – he caught James’ right elbow to the chops – but on further inspection he also banged his left knee against James’ right knee.

Now, on the bright side, X-rays were negative, and he’ll be re-evaluated on Tuesday. Maybe it was a precaution, but the scary side of it is that Lowry was driven the 100 yards to the team bus, wouldn’t talk, and was said to be limping badly through TSA screening.

We’re going to break down the game, but really, little else matters here. Lowry is this team’s most valuable and most important player, full stop, and if he’s less than 100 percent heading into the playoffs, the team’s chances of pulling off a series win take a significant hit. The obvious concern now is missing Lowry over the next two games – at home against Houston and Indiana – games that are likely losses without him. From there, the schedule turns friendlier, but an extended Lowry absence makes Toronto’s grasp on the three-seed far more tenuous.

Standings Update
Related to that last point, the loss once again slides the Raptors into a tie with Chicago for the three-seed in the East. While Toronto owns any tiebreaker by way of being a division winner, they are not guaranteed the third seed as a division winner, as some seem to be confused about. All a division win guarantees you is a top-four seed – and not even home-court advantage in the first round – so that you aren’t stuck playing an Indiana or Miami in round one.

Anyway, the Raptors and Bulls are locked at 42-32 with eight games to go, while the Brooklyn Nets sit two games back. No other team is a threat to home-court advantage any longer, as it’s simply too late for Washington to make up four games. That also means, for the 70-80 percent of you who want Washington in the first round, that the third seed is really important, because it’s looking more and more certain the Wizards will own the six-seed.

Finally, a note to those of you looking ahead to a second round match-up: please stop. The Raptors have won a single playoff round in their entire existence. Focus on accomplishing that, and let the second round chips fall where they may. If you are still looking ahead, however, Miami and Indiana are now tied atop the East and the Pacers look like a far more promising opponent.

A strong opening 21 minutes
The Raptors came out looking strong, playing a really good first half until a few miscues in the final minutes turned a four-point lead into a three-point deficit. This, despite a pretty ridiculous foul discrepancy, one that led Dwane Casey to say at halftime, “It’s inconceivable that two physical teams are playing the way we’re playing and only have three free throws.” Credit the Heat for their…efforts?…I guess?

Despite some shaky refereeing and a bit of carelessness with the ball, the Raptors shot 57.9 percent in the half, led by an excellent start to the game from DeMar DeRozan.

Frustrations Mount
Here’s a minor issue I had with Dwane Casey last night, though it’s hard to tell if the blame is on him or the players: the Raptors ended the half clearly frustrated with the officiating, with poor body language and technical fouls looking assured soon enough. Coming out of the half? The same. Someone has to step up and calm the team down at the break and have them galvanize around the underdog treatment – the attitude they came out with made it seem like they had spent the break complaining about it to each other.

So they come out for the second half and their first four shots are jumpers from 19-feet or further. The calls didn’t come in the first half, but the proper response was to come out of the chute aggressive and force the referee’s hands, not be resigned to that fate and start shooting long mid-clock jumpers.

In any case, the referees played a major part throughout, unfortunately. The Raptors ended up with a +11 in personal fouls, just the fourth time all season they’ve had that large a gap (keep in mind that while the Raptors foul more than all but one other team, they’re also fifth in the NBA in drawing fouls).

With all of that said, you have no choice but to play through it. The Raptors attempted just 10 free throws, and DeMar DeRozan, in particular, followed up a strong first half with an extremely passive second half (the seven assists were appreciated, however, and he’s come a long way in that regard).

The Fourth Quarter
The Raptors could have been forgiven for lying down in the fourth. Entering the frame stuck 11 with Lowry ruled out for the remainder of the game, on the second night of a back-to-back, against LeBron James and the Heat, nobody would have blinked an eye if the subs played out the stretch. This isn’t that kind of team though, and, led by Greivis Vasquez doing his best Lowry impression, the team managed to trim the lead to three with 6:13 to play.

The Heat pulled away from there, however, mostly because they’re the Heat. Ignoring Jonas Valanciunas – to that point having one of his best offensive games – down the stretch seemed curious, as he got just a single touch in the final six minutes.

Nando De Colo, Landry Fields and Steve Novak all saw run over the next four minutes, and the result was the Heat pulling away on a 9-3 run. Each of those players has their utility, and the team needs to see what Fields can offer before the cost of experimenting skyrockets in the playoffs, but that’s simply too untalented a group to rely on for the key stretch of a tight game against an elite team (even with Novak going Novakaine and hitting 4-of-6 from long range).

Closing Thoughts
It wasn’t a bad loss, really. Frustrating because of the referees and the near-comeback, sure, but they were six-point dogs and lost their best player for the fourth quarter. Think having Lowry down the stretch instead of De Colo would have made a difference? Maybe not the difference, but certainly a difference.

Aside from Lowry, would you like to know the key difference in this game? In 39 minutes that James was on the floor, the Heat outscored the Raptors by 22. In the other nine minutes, the Raptors outscored the Heat by 12. Turns out he’s really good, and the Raptors don’t have an answer for him (for what it’s worth, Terrence Ross did as well as could have been hoped early, but Casey opted for MOAR JOHN SALMONS for big chunks).

Actually, let’s pull that out of the parenthetical:

James with Salmons on floor this season – 70.8 TS%, 36 Pts/36min
James with Ross on floor this season – 71 TS%, 33.3 Pts/36min
James overall this season – 63.9 TS%, 25.6 Pts/36min

If Salmons isn’t providing any additional defensive value – and that’s not necessarily the case, as this is a tiny sample subject to tons of confounding factors – there’s no point in him being out there. The time has long since come for Salmons’ minutes to be cut, as the team basically plays 4-on-5 on offense with him out there. Sure, “late-clock creation” and an absence of turnovers, but he’s shooting 35.7 percent and has, by far, the worst player efficiency rating of any regular on the team. When I watch the game, it sure doesn’t seem like his defense is any better than that of Ross or even Fields. He’s a “safe” veteran, and that’s a crutch that’s hurting this team for 20 minutes a night.

In Pictures
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