Raptors still vulnerable despite strong play

DeMar DeRozan scored a game-high 33 points and grabbed six rebounds as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Miami Heat.

TORONTO — Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will tell you that his team tends to take on the personality of the teams they play. They don’t put their stamp on games; they don’t make the opposition play up to them; they don’t take complete control anywhere near as often as he’d like.

And you can see what he’s talking about when, say, the best-in-basketball Golden State Warriors are standing at the other end of the floor and the Raptors bring an incredibly spirited, intense effort to the game. Both of Toronto’s early season battles with the Warriors—two tight losses that nevertheless made the Raptors look like a truly great team—were classics. They were the Raptors at their best, regardless of the result.

And then you really see what Casey’s talking about when his team takes on a genuinely beatable outfit like the Orlando Magic. Toronto’s played Orlando twice this year—one they lost frustratingly by five, and in the other, they needed overtime to come away with a sloppy three-point win in London.

So with that in mind, enter the Miami Heat, who coughed and sputtered their way into the Air Canada Centre Friday night and presented an interesting test of Casey’s theory.

When at full strength, the Heat can be one of the better teams in the conference and have a similar mix of veteran savvy and dangerous offensive weaponry that the Washington Wizards used to sweep the Raptors out of the playoffs last season. But Friday night’s Heat were a watered down version of themselves, with three of five starters sidelined due to injury and only nine players available to take the floor.

Would the Raptors play up to what the Heat can be when fully healthy? Would they play down to the thin lineup the Heat brought north of the border? Or would these Toronto Raptors do what Casey has been urging all season and play their own brand of basketball, making their opponents react to them? We’ll let Casey provide his review.

“In the second half I thought we played the way were supposed to play,” the coach said after his team’s 101-81 victory over Miami, who barely had a chance considering they only had half a team. “But I thought in the first half we let them do what they wanted to do to us.”

So, maybe the best conclusion is mixed results? Casey is presumably speaking about his defence when he talks about a first-half lapse, as offensively, his team shot the lights out in the first 24 before slowing down substantially after that. The Raptors did allow Miami to shoot a bit better in the first half, but all told they held their opposition to 81 points on 41 per cent shooting, which isn’t awful.

But Casey identified two lulls, one in the first half and one in the second, that exposed another flaw he’s been striving to rid his team of: the inability to provide a consistent, high-tempo effort for four consecutive quarters.

“There were long stretches where we were kind of running in mud and not playing with force,” Casey said. “We had some turnovers and loose possessions. We want to clean those up."

It’s true—the Raptors started the fourth quarter with five turnovers in the first five minutes, a series of mistakes that allowed the Heat to hang around in the game much longer than they should have. Let it be known that the Raptors were never truly in danger of losing the game, thanks to a torrid 60-point first half and yet another stellar night from DeMar DeRozan who poured in 33 and hit four three-pointers. But like a hesitant fighter letting a rocked opponent regain their composure, the Raptors couldn’t finish, allowing Miami to cut a steep deficit down to single-digits.

The Heat posed enough of a threat of getting back into things in the fourth quarter that Casey couldn’t rest his stars. That meant both DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had to once again play more than 35 minutes, which has been the nightly ask this season and surely has to catch up with them at some point.

“We’ve got to learn how to keep playing with a lead and just build on it,” Lowry, who had 15 points and six assists in 38 minutes, said. “Teams are going to make runs. But you can’t let them cut it to single digits. We’ve got to keep trying to take it from 15 to 20, 20 to 25. We have to try to keep working on closing it out better and maintaining bigger leads.”

Of course, this is nit picking at what was, in the end, a 20-point blowout for the Raptors, a truly positive result to cap a truly positive week for the franchise. Consider that: they’ve won seven straight, Lowry will start next month’s All-Star Game with DeRozan all but certainly coming off the bench to join him, and the only team ahead of Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings, the supremely talented yet internally troubled Cleveland Cavaliers, did not exactly project themselves as a bastion of strength by firing their head coach amid a swirl of turmoil Friday afternoon. As far as moments in time go, this is a pretty good one to be a Raptors fan.

But these cracks in the armour still exist, and while the Raptors have rid themselves of the slow starts that plagued them throughout the season’s early stages, they still struggle to string together four quarters of consistent play. They generally beat the teams they’re supposed to, but fail to press their feet through the throats of those teams when they should.

This team undoubtedly has promise. Tons of it. But soon the time will come to turn promise into reality.

“Promise is like Christmas coming—you look forward to it but it’s not there yet,” Casey said. “We’re excited about what we can do, but it’s about work. It’s about doing more than just talking about it. It’s about getting it done on the court each and every night. Getting it done every quarter, not every other quarter. Every quarter is what we’ve got to build towards.”