The Toronto Raptors needed more practice closing out tight games against good teams after two weeks spent bludgeoning everyone they faced. They got it on Tuesday against the Miami Heat, and it hammered home exactly why that remains a point of concern even as the Raptors blow teams out with increasing regularity. The Heat nearly escaped the Air Canada Centre with a narrow victory once again, with the Raptors just barely clinging to a 115-112 victory after coughing up the bulk of a 17-point lead in the closing stretch.
It was a win that keeps Toronto in the top spot in the Eastern Conference through the All-Star break and one in which Dwane Casey was still borderline incensed at the team’s regression to an earlier form in a close-out situation.
“We got comfortable,’ Casey said. “We stopped executing, stopped moving, stopped cutting, stopped being strong with the ball. They were hitting us, grabbing us and officials are not calling it, we have to adjust to the way they’re calling the game. We didn’t do it down the stretch.”
They may not get a chance to iron these kinks out again until after a week to rest and unplug, though it’s clear what the points of emphasis will be when they reconvene, especially if they don’t do better Wednesday in Chicago. That they survived is a minor positive that didn’t at all improve the team’s mood, especially since the game looked well in-hand with a few minutes to go and the Raptors devolved from their newer style late.
Things started out better. The Raptors were moving the ball beautifully after a shaky couple of opening possessions, with Kyle Lowry finding Jonas Valanciunas twice with pretty passes in the opening minutes and totaling five assists in the quarter. OG Anunoby was a beneficiary, too, hitting a pair of threes. The Heat aren’t a defense to let things flow freely for long, and they managed to bait Toronto into some tough shots. The Raptors gave them the same treatment, though, and while the score didn’t indicate as grimy a game as the last meeting, that was due at least in part to good shot-making. DeMar DeRozan broke up a lob to Hassan Whiteside, Lowry got Justise Winslow with his trademark post defense, and Anunoby was everywhere scooping up loose balls. The energy looked appropriate.
Armed with a suddenly deeper rotation, Erik Spoelstra went to his bench early, and Dwane Casey responded by keeping Valanciunas’ breaks tethered to Whiteside’s. Even as the benches filtered in, it took a while for either side to gain any separation. James Johnson looked geeked up to face his old team – and Serge Ibaka – but a Heat lineup without a true point guard couldn’t get much flow going. DeRozan hit a pair of toe-on-the-line twos at the other end, and even when Dwayne Wade turned the clock back a bit with a driving dunk, C.J. Miles responded with a drive and a three to make up for some earlier defensive lapses.
The second quarter started with the all-bench group going on its usual mini-run and sending the Heat to an early timeout. Shocking, I realize. In this instance, it was Miles’ offense trying to lead the charge against an always-on-fire Wayne Ellington (he is great value in the 3-Point Shootout odds, by the way). The Heat made a prompt counterpush out of their timeout, rewarding Spoelstra for sticking with an unfamiliar lineup that still needs time to gel. Bam Adebayo, as he did in the last meeting, had some nice moments at both ends here, winning the battle of young bigs.
Casey called on Norman Powell for a spark, expanding the rotation to 11 and bringing some starters back in to a more dire (read: not up 20) situation than they’ve grown accustomed of late. The Raptors looked for Valanciunas to create, and he made a pair of quality passes out of the paint before drawing a foul on a post-up. Despite his decent success opposite Whiteside, the Heat managed to continue rolling against some imprecise Raptors defense and some strong play from Johnson. A closing Powell-and-starters stretch was saved by an Ibaka takeover and an incredibly smart – and goofy, and difficult – Lowry two-for one, nudging the Raptors back ahead two at the break after trailing by eight at one point.
“I think we almost conceded as a bench that we weren’t gonna get it there and he was, you know, just kinda ballsy enough to shoot it anyway,” VanVleet said of the two-for-one. “It went in, and I think it ended up being 6-2, they got the layup, he got the crazy, stupid shot he made at the end. I’ve seen him actually shot like that in practice before, so it was really funny. But 6-2 there in 30 seconds, that’s gotta be top of the list.”
It was a sloppy half the Raptors were maybe lucky to escape with a lead. The sloppiness was just as present in the third, with the two sides opening the quarter with competing traveling violations and rotational lapses. Toronto’s defense was suspect with some unnecessary switching and a lack of weak-side help on Whiteside, Anunoby struggled, and even a Lowry double in the post that forced a scramble resulted in Goran Dragic at the line for a four-point play. Letting Dragic get hot was an ill-advised strategy, as he scored 16 of his 28 points in the third. At least there was DeRozan, skying for a huge alley-oop from Lowry, baiting a goaltend from Whiteside, and hitting a three.
The offense as a whole was good enough to hang close until Dragic mercifully took a seat, and Casey let the starters play a little longer with Fred VanVleet to try to make a run. Make a run they did, as a Lowry offensive rebound save produced a VanVleet triple and Ibaka got fouled on a dunk attempt, building some momentum that carried over to the DeRozan-and-bench look. DeRozan did his best to make it so he’d sit the fourth for a sixth straight game, unleashing some and-one continuation wizardry and a put-back dunk to finish the quarter with 19 of his 27 points on the night and put the Raptors up 17 after three.
That tidy 21-4 run gave the Raptors’ bench the close-out control they’ve had so often of late. They’d have to do it opposite an interesting Dragic-and-bench look with a lot of ball-handling on the floor, and the young defense did their best to answer that call. With Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam making some tough finishes, the offense produced just enough, too. Or, at least enough to be up 16 with seven minutes left, a shade too uncomfortable for Casey to stick with the all-bench look longer. That proved nearly disastrous.
He called on Lowry and Valanciunas, and then DeRozan, ending a string of four consecutive games where no starter played in the fourth. (Obviously, the team would have loved to keep that streak up on the first night of a back-to-back, but it’s of far less concern given where their minutes have been at the last few weeks and with the break coming up.) The close-out was hardly rote from there, the Raptors letting off the gas too early, losing the plot some offensively, and failing to finish when they did stick to the offense. Lowry and DeRozan fell into some old patterns, giving Miami a window you can’t give Miami, and Lowry made some curious defensive decisions trying to make up for it. The Heat cut the lead to 10 with three minutes to go, and Casey responded with a three-point guard look against Miami’s four-out around Adebayo, which accomplished little – a pair of key and predictable offensive rebounds and some more stellar Dragic play produced a 15-3 run and brought Miami within a possession in the final minute.
The Raptors were in this exact spot against this same opponent not long ago and faltered thanks to a shaky offensive approach and some Spoelstra creativity. It wasn’t much prettier here, though they’d at least hang on. Toronto took the bulk of the clock to get DeRozan attacking out of a timeout, and Mose Schrute delivered a hard foul at the rim to give the Raptors some breathing room. They forced a tough miss the other way with some sound Siakam and Valanciunas defense, Lowry split a pair to go ahead five, and the Raptors appeared to have gotten another stop only to lose the ball out of bounds. Another nifty Spoelstra out-of-timeout play got Ellington a three, and when Miles became the third consecutive Raptor to split a pair of clutch free-throws, the ACC had to collectively hold its breath as a potential game-tying Josh Richardson buzzer-beating heave rimmed out.
It was an ugly fourth, but at least the Raptors got some much-needed reps closing out against a good team, something they haven’t had much opportunity to practice and correct in a while. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t execute particularly well in those minutes, and Casey’s post-game comments made it sound as if maybe he feared complacency setting in. If so, the Heat provided a reminder that the Raptors don’t have that luxury, no matter how well things have been going.
“I’m upset even though we won because I know. I know what’s coming around the corner,” he said. “Like you’re going down a dark alley, here comes a group of guys with a baseball bat and you say, ‘Oh, hey, where’s the baseball game?’ It’s 12 o’clock at night, you know what’s coming around the corner. Again, for us, we’ve got to pay attention to detail closing out games and not getting hit over the head with a bat at 12 o’clock at night.”
The team has to hope there’s some experiential value in sputtering when old habits set in once again. The Raptors hit 13 threes and had 24 assists to eight turnovers, scoring 115.9 points per-100 possessions against a top-10 defense and yet went away from what had worked entirely, failing to hit a field goal in the final four-and-a-half minutes.
“It was terrible,” DeRozan said. “It was a terrible win. We can’t close out games like that.”
They can’t. Maybe the message will stick with them into Wednesday and through the break.