What comes to mind when he thinks of the team from South Florida?
“A hard-playing, aggressive team,” the Raptors all-star point guard said in the build-up for a game between two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams through the first quarter of the season. “They will foul you. They will attack you. It’s going to be a boxing match every single time. That’s what they do. They fight and they rumble with you every single time. No matter who’s on their team. No matter what the situation is. They’re going to fight. And fight hard.”
The Heat came as advertised and the Raptors seemed to be playing with a forearm in their chest all night. Miami muscled and pushed and bounced Toronto around most of the game.
The Raptors pushed back though, using an 8-0 run in the final two minutes, culminating in a Norman Powell triple with 47.5 second left that put the home team up 108-107 after trailing for most of the second half. But Heat star Jimmy Butler tied it at the line before missing a buzzer-beating three ahead of overtime.
Butler made up for it as he started the extra period by scoring eight quick points in the first minute, putting Miami up by eight and out of reach for Toronto, en route to a well-deserved 121-110 win.
The loss dropped Toronto to 15-5 and halted their winning streak at seven and their home winning streak at nine as Miami improved to 15-5.
It might be a measure of how badly Lowry wanted to return to action for the first time in nearly a month that he decided to risk his thumb – the fracture not completely healed – against the Heat, where you know what’s coming before they get off the plane. He shot around on a near empty floor judged himself fit to play and went for it.
“We don’t have many practices or time to go out there so why not test it against a hard-playing team?” he said.
Lowry was some was some version of himself, throwing his body into harm’s way at every chance and even making a late steal by reaching with his left hand on Miami’s Bam Adebayo – a play very similar to how Lowry hurt his thumb in the first place.
He just couldn’t make a basket and it’s hard not to imagine a different outcome had Lowry shot better than 2-of-18 from the field, although his 11 assists and his perfect 8-of-8 mark from the free-throw line showed he can help his team without shooting it well from the floor.
“That’s terrible,” he said of his shooting line. That’s rhythm. I missed shots, I didn’t force anything, everything I shot came within the offense and honestly a lot of those threes [he was 0-of-11] went in and out, lay-ups.
“It’s just rhythm and a little bit of timing. Honestly I haven’t done basketball-type playing since New Orleans [where Lowry was hurt on Nov. 8th] so it takes a game, but I’m sure I’ll be better next game. It’s nothing to be concerned or worried about.”
But we knew that.
We knew what the Heat were going to bring too. It’s been that way for even longer than Lowry’s 14 NBA seasons. The Heat established their no-holds-barred style when president Pat Riley took over as head coach in 1995 and haven’t wavered since, with Erik Spoelstra sharing the message from the bench for the past 12 seasons – the second-longest tenure in the league behind San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich – while getting buy-in from superstars and role players alike.
Winning the overtime period thanks to a superstar showing by Butler or getting 22 points from undrafted second-year player Devin Robinson was just the latest chapter in Heat story.
They’ve won three titles and missed the playoffs more than once over that span, but they’ve never budged in their approach.
“It’s one voice, it’s everyone sacrificing for one common goal,” said hard-nosed Heat player Udonis Haslem, a 16-year vet who has transitioned from championship-team starter to minor role player but is revered in Miami for his commitment to what the Heat stand for. “But you have to be willing to work. Culture isn’t created by having bad habits. It’s easy to have bad habits. Creating good habits takes work, every single day, trying to get one per-cent better. You have to stick with it.
“And the older guys try to impress that upon the younger guys and everything starts to fall in line and all of a sudden you have a culture and people understand what to expect when they get here.”
The secret sauce? The words the Heat use aren’t that much different – if at all – from what any other organization throw around: hard work, accountability, unselfishness. They pretty much cover it.
But doing it is the trick.
“I say this all the time,” Spoelstra explained. “It doesn’t really matter what your culture is as long as you believe in it and hold people to those standards and you’re consistent with it even though there’s personnel changes from year to year, quite naturally. It’s a hard thing to do.”
“It’s much easier to fire people.”
From afar Spoelstra says he admires what the Raptors have put together as they work to defend their first NBA title.
“They’ve proven they have a championship culture and an organization that has had sustained success for a while It took them a while to get to the mountain top and win it, but they’ve been one of the top teams in the East for several years,” said Spoelstra. “They’re doing a lot of the right things. It doesn’t guarantee anything with the competition, but you can see they have the foundation of something they believe in.”
Lowry is as big a part of what the Raptors have built as anyone. His combination of unflinching fierceness and smarts have come to define their style of play over his eight seasons in Toronto. Perhaps best exemplified that the Raptors’ level didn’t drop in his 11-game absence, in which Toronto went 9-2 and got myriad contributions from unexpected sources.
“I think we’ve built [something like what the Heat have] here,” said Lowry. “And I think it’s important that no matter what, whoever comes in, the next person, player, whatever — it’s what the organization has done. You have certain organizations that have built that and we’re one of them. And Miami’s definitely one of them. They’ve built a culture. And they’ve sustained it. And it will be the same thing as long as those top guys — Pat Riley, and [Spoelstra] and their people — are still around. Same thing with us. We’ve instilled something into the organization. As long as these guys are around, it’ll be the same.”
It was the Heat who looked more true to their identity early as they jumped out to a 32-23 lead after the first quarter and generally looked the more energized team, as they led at the half and heading into the fourth quarter too.
But elsewhere the Heat looked the more energized team. For the first time it was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson getting out-hustled for loose balls and Pascal Siakam looking flummoxed against Miami’s Adebayo, a rapidly improving and remarkably powerful power forward. Siakam was held to just 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting as the Raptors shot just 38.9 per cent from the field and 11-of-43 from deep.
“I thought they played with great energy, they were really flying around at both ends,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Much, much more than we were so that was kind of the first thing.”
The Heat win will go down as one of 82 but, if there was any question that Miami is back and looking to regain its place in the Eastern Conference pecking order after a few lean years, it was as good an indicator as any.
For Miami it has just been a matter of time.