Maybe it’s a good thing the Toronto Raptors aren’t drawing Wayne Ellington in a playoff series.
In what ended up being a meaningless game in outcome terms since the Washington Wizards lost Wednesday, Ellington lead the Miami Heat to a fun, if nearly disastrous overtime victory against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors suffered a trio of injury scares, which kind of took away from a fun end-of-game scenario, and the Heat out-executed them down the stretch to come back and then pull away. At the center of everything was Ellington, who one-upped a near triple-double from Kyle Lowry with 32 points on 8-of-12 from long-range. As far as closing nights to a heck of a regular season go, it teetered on the edge of worrisome for most of the second half, and it feels like somewhat of a relief to have even a great season in the past, the focus finally able to shift forward in earnest.
The Raptors came out with better energy than you might expect given the low stakes, with Lowry in particular not getting any memos about taking it easy. Lowry hit a corner three to open the game, grabbed his own offensive rebound for a jumper shortly after, and generally barreled into bodies to draw contact. It’s Lowry’s game, and it’s hard to ask Lowry to be less Lowry. Others were a little less eager, and the Raptors were mostly content to take what Miami was offering. That led to some clean perimeter looks early on, as the Heat tried to funnel ball-handlers and off-ball curls toward Hassan Whiteside in the middle and the Raptors made the correct passes to the outside rather than forcing it.
Things weren’t quite as seamless defensively, though the Raptors certainly weren’t upset with Whiteside missing an ungodly amount of shots and James Johnson getting out to a slow start. Ellington and Tyler Johnson were a little better engaged, and as such had the Heat out ahead just a little as the Raptors began going to their bench. C.J. Miles quickly looked to match Ellington, drilling a three upon checking in, and the opposing side’s veteran bench presence responded in kind, with Dwyane Wade getting a second-chance bucket. The DeMar DeRozan-and-bench unit settled things down as they so often have, and after a Pascal Siakam feed for Jakob Poeltl and a Fred VanVleet three, the Raptors were able to take a two-point lead by the end of the quarter.
Toronto’s all-bench group came out a little sloppy, having their play call exposed for a steal, fumbling a hand-off for another turnover, and losing the handle on a drive. Miami didn’t make the most of those opportunities initially – the Raptors bench still makes everything not in transition so difficult – but eventually the Heat made them pay. Ellington with space above the arc in transition is not a tenable result from an offensive possession, and all told, the Heat scored seven points off of four turnovers in the first three minutes of the quarter. Some tremendous outlet passes and catch-and-finish plays in transition helped the Raptors keep pace despite the miscues – Poeltl had made 25 of his last 27 shots (and 31 of 36) at one points – and the bench had played to even by the end of their five-plus minutes as a group.
Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas teamed up to try to pull ahead from there. Valanciunas found a cutting Lowry for a layup, Valanciunas then hit a short-corner jumper set up by Serge Ibaka, and Lowry drew a charge on old friend Johnson in the post. The charge was Lowry’s 37th drawn on the season, most in the NBA since 2013-14 and more than nine entire teams drew this year. Like I said earlier, you can’t ask Lowry to be less Lowry. DeRozan got in on the act with a tough reverse, some of the only offense Toronto managed over a late-half drought, then drew a foul, hit a tough step-back along the baseline, and unleashed an impossible floater at the buzzer. That put the Raptors up six heading into the break, and they were a few careless mistakes from being ahead a lot more than that. It was probably a good reminder of how tough teams like the Heat treat imprecision ahead of the playoffs.
The Raptors kept with the dress rehearsal script in the second half, bringing the starters back out. Lowry and Valanciunas got back to the two-man game right away, producing a Lowry three and a miss from outside for Valanciunas, whose elbow seemed to be bugging him a bit. The Raptors left nothing to risk when the game began to get pretty weird and more than a little physical, giving Valanciunas the early hook. Erik Spoelstra responded differently, earning a technical foul for arguing a call at the rim, and the Raptors nudged ahead further on the back of some strong two-way Ibaka minutes. Valanciunas returned – there was never an update as to whether anything happened or it just looked like he was favoring it – then the Raptors tried an unfamiliar look with Miles in Ibaka’s slot (after Johnson dunked on his old team).
Miles immediately had a rear-view block, emblematic of the continued effort on the defensive end, something that was surely encouraging to Dwane Casey in such an environment. Miami made a counter-push when the bench-heavy transitional groups struggled to score, but a number of offensive rebounds and a Delon Wright Euro-step breather some life. What was once an 11-point lead got trimmed to seven entering the fourth, and with the stars flirting with the 30-minute mark, the bench closing out would have been preferred. They started the fourth off defending well enough, with Poeltl protecting the rim and Miles drawing a charge, but Ellington’s shooting, Toronto’s inability to score, and that Miles charge (or a fall he took a few possessions earlier) knocking him from the game for a while gave Miami a window to get right back in it, trimming the gap to a single possession.
Casey went back to Lowry and Ibaka to try to close things out, and Miami briefly took the lead when Norman Powell went under a hand-off against Ellington. The two sides traded punches from there, and the Raptors were able to get some potentially useful crunch-time reps right before the postseason (at the risk of some physical Miami play). Lowry was everywhere upon checking back in, going full KLOE to assuage any concerns about a recent dip that was overstated anyway. The Raptors got another minor scare after that, as Kelly Olynyk caught Ibaka with an elbow in the mouth (sandwiched by Heat threes, no less), sending Ibaka to the bench. DeRozan and Lowry each stuck mid-range jumpers to draw back tied, only for Ellington to hit another big three, setting a Heat single-season record. And then the Raptors lost VanVleet on a hard (and likely illegal) screen, which may end up the biggest takeaway from this one.
There was still a game to close out, and after DeRozan and Lowry each missed jumpers, Ellington hit another three to go ahead two. With 19 seconds to play, the Raptors got DeRozan a head of steam and used Miles as a potential pick-and-pop screener, and DeRozan fired a beautiful pass to Wright in the corner. Wright missed, but Poeltl tipped the rebound in to tie the game. Siakam then forced Johnson into a tough miss at the end of regulation, setting up a wholly unnecessary overtime. Miami got ahead five out of the gate, Poeltl and DeRozan responded, and Ellington put it away from there. The Raptors fought to the final buzzer, they just couldn’t close that final gap without two of their regular closers and with their jumpers going cold for just a few minutes.
Really, none of this mattered. It’s great that they got some playoff-style late-game reps, I suppose, and it’s fine that they wanted to chase their 60th win. At the same time, playing the stars close to 40 minutes each, potentially losing VanVleet in the process, and generally treating the game as something more meaningful than it was ran pretty risky. And that’s to say nothing of the late-game execution, which aside from Lowry getting hot for a stretch and one great pass from DeRozan fell into some of the same bad habits that have cost the team at times during the regular season. It’s probably not worth diving too deep or getting too upset given the stakes here, the two players they were without, and the need to shift focus to the playoffs, but it wasn’t a resounding final run to close out the year. At the same time, it’s the end of the most successful regular season in franchise history, so take from it whatever positives you choose. Onward!