Playoff basketball is a different beast. You hear it all the time. The whistles can grow a little tighter, the game a little more physical, the intensity a little more palpable. Everything at the margins matters that much more, and so rotations get tightened, experimentation is saved for necessity and emergency, and the game gets uglied up a bit, the war becoming firmly one of attrition.
The Toronto Raptors know this, having gone through the slough three years in a row now. They learned exactly what the playoffs take in a gruesome series with the Brooklyn Nets. They learned exactly how quickly things can go awry if a team doesn’t enter the postseason at their best and doesn’t have a secondary offering against the Washington Wizards. And a year ago, they learned exactly how to grind out games and series when they weren’t anywhere near that best, finally discovering other ways of getting by, a core that’s now playoff-tested bearing the fruit of that experience.
Those same Raptors entered this year with fewer granular question marks, most of the season’s previews focusing on how they could grow to better challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the Raptors stumbled, running into injury and malaise and complacency along the way. A pair of trade deadline acquisitions shocked the team’s constitutions and an injury to Kyle Lowry forced a change in approach to survive. There is a clear silver lining to Lowry missing a quarter of a season in that the Raptors had little choice but to dial in on defense or fold up shop, though there’s no saying they wouldn’t have found that same new gear even with Lowry around. You look for silver linings only when there are clouds, after all.
“I’d much rather have Kyle there, especially once the trade was made, give us more games together and time together,” head coach Dwane Casey said before the game. “It is what it is. But it did have some residual effects for guys.”
The issue, of course, is that Lowry’s late-season absence threatened to have the Raptors patching together a chemistry as the postseason began. On Wednesday, Lowry returned in emphatic fashion, helping lift the Raptors to a comeback victory against the Detroit Pistons. There were serious cracks shown in that game as the team worked to merge an All-Star back into the rotation and into the team’s flow, but it worked out, and there was a sense that a tight fourth quarter after putting themselves in a hole was almost beneficial. Again, you look for the silver lining only when there are clouds, and a dispirited 36 minutes of play against a justifiably hungry Pistons team paved the way for a close-out that ran heavy on valuable experimentation.
The Miami Heat visited the Air Canada Centre on Friday, and the two storylines facing the late-season Raptors kind of merged into one. That the Raptors won 96-94 is, in all honesty, fairly secondary. Yes, the Raptors probably prefer the third seed to the fourth seed at this point in time, and wins are preferable to losses, but the focus is decidedly on the qualitative right now, the time for process over results upon them. Whether the Raptors would win 48 or 50 or 52 games hasn’t had a great deal of marginal value the last while, because the Raptors have learned over the last few years that what’s far more important than record or first-round playoff opponent is getting to the playoffs in a proper groove, playing good basketball.
Working Lowry back into the fold and finding out the right combinations and rotations remains the focus here late in the season, and the Raptors are short on time even with Lowry’s return coming within the timeline they’d hoped for. Four games is not a great deal of a sample from which to learn, judge, and adjust. At the same time, the Raptors have been trying to emulate playoff basketball as best they can, playing with more force, tightening the rotation, and generally trying to be at their best at both ends of the floor. Running into a Miami team that’s played well over the last few months, that stands as a tough matchup for the Raptors, and whose playoff life is quite literally on the line, then, was a bit of a blessing – there’s really not much closer to playoff basketball than a game like this, an opponent like this, and a late-game scenario like this.
That late-game scenario, with the Raptors trying to close out a lead down the stretch, was avoidable. The Raptors led by double-digits for the bulk of the game after a strong defensive start bled into some quality offense in the middle quarters. They once pushed the lead as large as 18, and for the third game in a row, they saw an opponent turn around and take over a large stretch of basketball.
A 14-4 Miami run in the third got the ball rolling, and an early fourth-quarter surge saw Miami roll off a 13-5 run. Wayne Ellington got unseasonably warm from outside. Josh Richardson made some difficult shots. Goran Dragic helped lead a full-court press the Raptors seemed unprepared for. Hassan Whiteside shook off early foul trouble, wiped away his tears about the Raptors “flopping,” and played solid late. And James Johnson shook off an 0-of-7 start to shoot 8-of-10 down the stretch, tormenting wistful Raptors fans with 22 points, 10 rebounds, and contributions all over the box score and court.
Backed into a corner, the Raptors were given the opportunity to play out another tight fourth quarter against a team for whom every possession truly mattered. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan looked good once again trading possessions and ball-handling duties late. Lowry didn’t shoot particularly well but his performance overall was solid, save for a few end-game decisions that were shaky (like shooting – and getting blocked – on a fast-break rather than holding to eat time). DeRozan was leaned on heavily, taking 32 shots, but he poured in 38 points to break Vince Carter’s franchise record for 30-point games in a season, and he hit some patently difficult shots in the game’s closing minutes, including a beautiful charge to the rim for a pretty finger-roll. Cory Joseph played just masterfully all night and helped the team survive the press late by adding another ball-handler to the mix. And Jonas Valanciunas played well enough in the fourth quarter, starting the frame and then re-entering when Serge Ibaka fouled out.
More than any one player, though, what stood out was the Raptors’ defense, which was the best it’s been over 48 minutes in some time. Even with their comeback, the Heat scored just 96.6 points per-100 possessions, a tidy mark. The Raptors didn’t protect the paint exceptionally well and need to clean their defensive rebounding up, but their focus and attention were strong, they chased Miami off the line well, and the communication behind the point of attack was strong.
That Casey treated the game similar to a playoff game made sense. The rotation was essentially capped at eight, with Delon Wright playing five minutes in the first half to help limit Lowry’s minutes and Jakob Poeltl playing three minutes to help around Ibaka’s foul trouble. This was who the Raptors are going to be in the playoffs, and the defense holding form under pressure is a positive harbinger. The offense, they hope, will come, and they believe they can respond better to opponent physicality without couching up the ball 18 times. But they also know that it’s their defense they’ll be leaning on a lot as the games get tighter, grimier, and more physical in the postseason next week.
“Overall I thought our defence was very solid,” Casey said. “We’re getting ready for what’s coming.”
The Raptors will say that these next two games are a part of their playoff preparation, but that might be disingenuous. Other than Sunday’s game tipping off at noon, there’s little about the New York Knicks that screams playoff test. And Wednesday’s meeting with Cleveland may or may not see the two teams getting a bit of rest. Detroit and Miami were the big test games, desperate teams the Raptors probably could have put away with more ease but who did Toronto the favor of helping forge a new chemistry by having to close out back-to-back tight games in the fourth quarter. That experience is invaluable in a tight time frame.
“Emotionally, spiritually, physically lock in, completely,” DeRozan said of what the team has to do next. “Understand it’s going to get real after these next two games. Come next weekend, it’s a whole different dynamic of basketball. That’s the best part of the year. That’s what you work for to play into April, going into May and so on.”
The last two games lend encouragement that the Raptors are heeding these words and the lessons of the last three postseasons.