Final Score: Heat 109, Raptors 117 (OT)
Few things are as good as some exciting basketball on a lazy Sunday afternoon – and yesterday afternoon’s tilt against the Heat at Scotiabank Arena offered just that. The Miami Heat came into town to play the Raptors, and quite simply, were playing for their playoff lives. With Brooklyn and Detroit both in action later in the day, the Heat were well aware that a loss against the Raptors, combined with Brooklyn and Detroit wins would lead to their elimination from playoff contention. And when the ball was tipped, it was clear that Miami was going to play with an edge. The Heat were grinding down the Raptors early, and got up as much as 13 at one point in the first half, in typical Miami Heat fashion – gritty defense and opportunistic offense.
Of course, the Raptors had incentive of their own to win this one; with the Warriors coming into the game yesterday with an equal number of losses this season as the Raptors, losing either of these final 2 games could mean losing home court advantage in a potential NBA Finals matchup. While the thought of that might seem crazy, it really shouldn’t be. The Raptors really should expect to make it that far, and wanting to be at your best at this point of the season by winning every game is probably a good idea anyway.
And so, it was a rare and true glimpse we got at what a healthy Raptors playoff team may look like, as Nick Nurse stuck to a 9-man rotation that featured Serge, Fred, Norm, and OG off of the bench. Kawhi and Kyle played 38 and 42 minutes respectively, with Siakam clocking 37 as well. Miami simply had nobody to match up against Pascal, who once again found his way from the field. Whether it was in isolation or an open 3 off of dribble penetration, Siakam was mostly unstoppable. But the most surprisingly positive contribution for the Raptors came from Norm Powell, who was a perfect 7/7 from the field and 4/4 from beyond the arc. Powell seemed to have that playoff spring in his step, making me wonder – is playoff Norm back? Not something we can rely on of course, but even remotely consistent contributions from the fourth year pro would be great at this time of year. The only sore spots for Toronto were Fred and OG, who were a combined 1/12 from the field.
The game really developed a playoff feel in the second half, with both teams shooting sub-50 percent from the field, and each bucket seeming like it would be the start of the deciding run. But the score stayed within one possession, and when it mattered most, the Raptors seemed to have another gear offensively. Whether it was a clutch Danny Green 3 pointer, or Kawhi or Pascal mid-range baskets, the offense in the second half really seemed to click at the right moments.
Not surprisingly, the Raptors went with a Kawhi Leonard isolation on their final possession with the game tied; but Leonard settled for a long distance 3-ball that clanked off the rim, giving Miami 10 seconds for the final shot of the game. The Raptors withstood it though with impressive perimeter defense by Marc Gasol on James Johnson. Bam Adebayo almost followed up Johnson’s miss with an offensive rebound as a result of a blatant over-the-back foul on Lowry, but was too late in his attempt. To overtime to went.
While Miami battled in the extra session, the Raptors put the finishing touches on the Heat in overtime, with Pascal hitting the deciding go ahead 3 in the corner to go up 7 with just over 40 seconds to play. And while Dwyane Wade had his vintage moments throughout, it was shades of the 2016 playoff series once again, in which the Raptors fought incredibly hard to ultimately outlast the Heat. In what was likely Wade’s last game in Toronto, Raptors fans gave the legend the farewell he deserved. Wade was given a standing ovation in the first quarter when he checked into the game at the 6 minute mark. And Josh Lewenberg of TSN confirmed that Wade and Kawhi had a post-game jersey exchange after the game (that now gives Wade 3 Raptors jerseys – to go along with Lowry’s and Delon Wright’s from earlier this season).
With the playoffs set to begin in less than a week, it was clear that the Raptors took the opportunity of their last home game of the regular season as sort of a high intensity scrimmaging tool. The rotation seemed selective, the starters had a high usage, and the overall playoff intensity of the game was palpable. While the Raptors weren’t exactly shooting lights out (at just under 45%), the 3-point shooting was especially encouraging. Kawhi, Danny, Pascal and Norm all hit at least 3 long balls, which was immensely helpful. Danny’s shooting this season has been sublime, and with the added passing capability of Gasol, it makes for easier opportunities for him to score. When the Raptors offense grinds to a halt, it is often Green that bails them out, so seeing Danny shooting this way before the playoffs is a good sign.
The Raptors will now travel to Minnesota for the final regular season game on Tuesday against the Timberwolves. Minnesota is coming off a loss to Thunder last night, and of course are out of the Western Conference playoff race. But Karl Anthony Towns has been playing out of his mind since Jimmy Butler’s departure and is an offensive machine, so the Raptors will have their hands full in trying to close out the season with a win – playoff rotation or not. Tip time on Tuesday is 8 pm.