TORONTO – Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s career has touched nearly every inch of the NBA spectrum.
Once upon a time he was an intern in the video room, trying to impress NBA legend and Heat president Pat Riley. He moved up to advance scout, then assistant coach and eventually head coach and was on the bench as the Heat became a LeBron James-led mini-dynasty, appearing in four straight Eastern Conference Finals and winning consecutive NBA championships.
But now? He’s at the other end of that. James is gone, Dwyane Wade is gone and Chris Bosh’s career is likely over. Spoelstra’s Heat are part of the NBA’s working class again, trying to squeeze every last possession out of a team that’s light on star power but has worked its way into playoff contention after a disastrous 11-30 start.
Miami absolutely needed to win in its Friday night visit to the Air Canada Centre. Game 79 of its regular season meant almost everything.
“Our guys want this,” Spoelstra was saying before the game as his club was sitting in ninth place, a half-game out of the last playoff spot in the East. “…. There’s been so much discussion about regular season games that don’t really matter [in the NBA]. They’re not watching our games.”
It’s the way it should be this time of year. The Raptors’ 96-94 win over Miami (38-41) came against a desperate team. The Heat played like it, fighting back from a near blowout in the second quarter – they were down 18 at one point – to finally tie the game at 80 with just under five minutes to play. They kept coming.
And it wasn’t that the Raptors (49-31) were rolling over although they were a little sloppy down the stretch. Lowry missed two free throws and a layup in the last minute that gave the Heat life as a Wayne Ellington three with five seconds left cut Toronto’s lead to three before DeMar DeRozan iced it with two more free throws on his way to a game-high 38 points.
It was a playoff-style game with each team struggling to make even 40 per cent of their field goals – Toronto finished at 41.2 while holding the Heat to 39.8.
There were hard fouls. Contested shots.
And some hero moments, too, as first Lowry and then DeRozan scored high-degree of difficulty layups in the final three minutes to keep the Heat at bay, if only barely.
It was exactly what the Raptors were looking for. The stakes weren’t nearly as high for the Raptors Friday night. They have home court secured. They are in the driver’s seat for the No.3 seed in the East, although they need to win games to stay there.
But they have no interest in thumbing through their phones, feet up until the playoffs start. They’ve been there, done that, and it backfired. And try and game the system to hand-pick an opponent? Not happening, even if they could pull it off.
Remember the 2015 playoffs? First-round against Washington after the Raptors all-star break lasted until April, comfy with the No.3 seed.
Yeah, Kyle Lowry does, too.
“Everyone wanted us to play a team [the Wizards] that swept us,” said Lowry, who got a huge roar upon being introduced for the last home game of the season and his first at the ACC in two months. “I personally just want to play anybody, it doesn’t matter.”
And last year as the Raptors were home and cooled as the No.2 seed with a six-game lead over No.3?
Many of those around the team think that weeks of no-pressure basketball cost them their edge as they started the playoffs with a thudding Game 1 loss to a Pacers team that had been grinding throughout March and April.
“Funny, me and coach talked about it early in the year,” said Lowry. “These last games, we can’t do that, we have to play, no coasting. Maybe a game, whatever. It’s really good to play and we decided we were going to play no matter what this time of year. We felt the last few years we started off in the playoffs slower because we didn’t play and go balls to the wall our last couple of games.
“… I think last year we learned our lesson,” said Lowry. “Go out there, play.”
Friday night was the Raptors’ first real chance to play with the team that has been admired on paper but rarely together on wood.
“Everyone is available,” said Casey before the game. What a concept.
And for the most part, the Raptors played like a team that had its high beams on, to borrow a Casey expression.
They were trailing by one with three minutes to play in the third quarter when Casey went to his bench. A unit anchored initially by DeRozan and later by Lowry held the Heat to just one field goal for the next six minutes. DeRozan could get his game off at will. He scored 12 straight points in one stretch and finished the first half with 25 as the Raptors led by 18 midway through the second quarter and 53-43 at half while holding the Heat to just 34 per cent shooting.
It was a good glimpse into Casey’s thinking with the playoffs approaching as he played just eight players, his rotation tightened, playoff style. Delon Wright got just five minutes, Jakob Poeltl three and Norm Powell didn’t get a sniff.
It was needed. The Heat weren’t about to let their future be decided without a fight. They turned up the defensive juice on Toronto in the third quarter, holding the Raptors to just 17 points and cutting their lead to just five heading into the fourth. They held DeRozan to just two points in the second half until he wriggled free for 11 in the final six minutes of the game.
Just what the doctor ordered, figured Casey.
With three games – now two – left there isn’t a lot of time for Casey to iron-out his lineups and Lowry to get familiar with newcomers Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and re-familiarize himself with the rest of his teammates after missing 21 games following wrist surgery.
The Raptors know they have a very completive lineup and the Eastern Conference has never been more wide open, with even the Cleveland Cavaliers coming back to the pack a little bit.
Eventually saying: “We’ll see.”
What they need is time and tests. They don’t have much of the former, but Friday night Miami provide the latter.
“I really cherish the fact that we’re playing meaningful games more than bull crap games that don’t mean anything,” Casey said. “I think it’s good for us: the intensity of the game … This team (Miami), is fighting to get into playoff position, eighth place, and we’re fighting for something. And as much as you can get through that, it’s a huge help.”
Unspoken is he’d like the Raptors to pass the tests, to come out on top.
All unfolded perfectly Friday. The exams are yet to come.