The game, as so many Toronto Raptors games do this season, was drifting out of reach like a released helium balloon. The Raptors had allowed the Miami Heat to fight back into the game during the third quarter, as Toronto’s previous offensive fluidity froze stiff and solid. The Raptors couldn’t break inside the arc. They came to rely on difficult shots. Sometimes they went in, as Chris Boucher hit a triple, then OG Anunoby a late-clock, side-step one of his own. Norman Powell hit a one-legged 18-foot (!) floater.
Such heroics kept the Heat at bay. But if Toronto couldn’t find a way to score against Miami’s zone, then they weren’t going to win the game. When the fourth quarter started, Andre Iguodala and Kendrick Nunn began to heat up for Miami, and the game seemed eerily similar to the first Toronto-Miami game, one in which the Raptors led for much of the game before eventually sputtering before the finish line.
Then Stanley Johnson made his mark.
First he hit a moonwalk triple as he slid back to the right corner and received a pass from the driving Terence Davis. It had been the first instance of paint penetration in what felt like hours; the Raptors had endured yet another stretch of three-plus minutes scoring in the third quarter that allowed the Heat to tie the game at 61-apiece, making this their fourth game of the season with such an ignominious stretch. Yet Johnson’s triple put the Raptors ahead by 11. Even more than that, it was Toronto’s first shot out of a solid offensive possession in the half-court for some time.
Johnson didn’t stop there. A minute later he saw Chris Boucher cutting along the baseline and knifed a pass through the zone for the dunk. To my eyes, it was one of the only baskets Toronto scored all game off a cut. Johnson wasn’t all that impressed with himself and explained it to me in simple terms.
“They’re looking at the people they’re guarding or looking at the ball,” explained Johnson. “So Chris makes a cut, two people looking at the ball, I can throw it right between them.”
“That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not really difficult to beat a 2-3 zone. I think all of us have played against it our whole lives, but we got to stick to the script and do what we are supposed to do.”
A minute after that, Johnson caught the ball in the middle of the zone. That position had been Toronto’s only chance at good offense against the Heat’s zone throughout the night, and Johnson took advantage. He took one dribble, sucking in the wing defender, and immediately pivoted to hit Anunoby for an open triple, one of the five he hit on the night. Johnson only finished with three points and three assist, but his contributions came at a key point in the game, only a few nights after Toronto folded in a similar situation.
Toronto put the game away as the stars did the last of the heavy lifting. Anunoby flew for a dunk (an alley-oop, in fact, assisted by Jonson); Siakam took a charge; VanVleet stole the ball for a pick-six layup. But it was Johnson who held the team up in the moment when it seemed they may flounder.
Of course, Johnson may have kept the Raptors afloat offensively for one brief stretch, but the team as a whole was a mirror image of itself defensively. Entering the game, Nick Nurse was as curt and forthright as he has ever been with media members.
“Normally you can walk out of there and say at least we were putting an effort out there,” said Nurse. “It’s too bad because I think we played really hard for about six or seven straight games. We were building and building and building and building, and it kind of culminated with that defensive effort against Dallas. And then there was just nothing there the other night. It’s hard to explain. It just happens.
But it’s unacceptable.”
Norman Powell said after the game that it constituted one of the two or three proper bouts of criticism Nurse gives per year. And, according to Powell, it was “definitely warranted.”
To the team’s credit, they responded to Nurse’s public prodding. Siakam played his best defensive game of the season. He played with effort and attention to detail, and with his physical gifts and incredible mind on the defensive end, he is able to stop almost any matchup. He switched freely from guards to bigs, and Toronto was all the better for it.
Siakam wasn’t alone. Aron Baynes played his best game of the season. He bullied Bam Adebayo on the defensive end and grabbed available rebounds with both hands. He finished with two blocks, six boards, and a made triple, as Toronto won his minutes by a solid five points. OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet returned to their brilliant defensive ways. In general, the team was itself again.
If you’re counting at home, Toronto now has two statement wins over good teams in the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. Yes, ignore the fact that both teams were down approximately half the rotation. But the Raptors are rapidly becoming themselves again. And at 6-9 in the standings, the Raptors are only two games out of fifth place in the East.
The bad vibes that haunted Toronto’s early season may not be over, but it’s clear that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, if we aren’t already there. You can credit Stanley Johnson’s steady and timely play against the Heat as a key reason why the Raptors prevailed in this one, but so too has his solidification in the roster been a key reason why the Raptors may now be out of the tunnel.