While the Raptors came into Christmas with the NBA’s best record and no Christmas day game, they were on the Boxing Day schedule with a visit to Miami to play one of the hottest teams in the league, with the Heat coming in as winners of nine of their previous twelve games.
Earlier in the week the indications were that the Raptors may be on the path towards having a nearly healthy rotation once again, but as game time approached Kyle Lowry was ruled out after missing morning shoot-around to go with Jonas Valanciunas who is still out after dislocating his thumb earlier in the month. Still, Toronto got Danny Green and Serge Ibaka back for this game after both missed the loss against the 76ers on Saturday.
Early in the game, the Heat showed their intention to take advantage of Valanciunas being unavailable and attack the paint with Hassan Whiteside who provided a significant size mismatch against both Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, and Miami was able to find consistent success doing so. While at the other end of the floor they challenge the Raptors to find shot creation away from Kawhi Leonard as Justice Winslow showed his prowess at that and and they brought frequent help over to crowd his space, and the Raptors struggled to find other answers, with Serge Ibaka missing a few of the mid-range jumpers he’s lived on this season and Fred VanVleet not finding his shot in the first half, and the team would go into half-time down 58-44.
With the Raptors this season, however, they’ve shown that they can’t be counted out no matter how rough the game begins, and they once again came out of half-time with the intention to fight their way back into this game. Nick Nurse brought out his zone defense in the frame, helping to contain Whiteside and slow down the Heat, and Kawhi exerted his will on the third quarter for 12 points in the quarter, and Fred VanVleet was able to capitalize as well on the Heat defense to chip in 11, including hitting three from long distance as the Raptors took the lead heading into the fourth.
In the fourth quarter the Heat fought back, with Winslow leading the way with 9 in the quarter, but this was once again about the Raptors’ ability to counter-punch that they’ve shown throughout this season. Every time Miami would hit a big shot to close the gap or give themselves back a lead the Raptors came right back with a shot of their own, culminating in Danny Green hitting a huge three in the corner with 22 seconds to go to give the Raptors a two-point lead, followed by an intense defensive possession to hold the lead.
With Valanciunas still out for some time, the troubles given Toronto by Whiteside in this game, and Embiid on Saturday night, may be something that continues in the near future, but Jonas gives the Raptors a bigger presence when he returns to help solve that issue.
This certainly wasn’t a dominant win by any stretch, with the Raptors never having a lead larger than four points at any point during the night, but this was a resilience emblematic of this team, and it showed why the Raptors made the trade they did to bring in Leonard and Green. In this game, every time the Raptors needed a big play down the stretch it felt like it was one of those two players coming through with a big play to regain the team’s composure.