Short-handed Raptors’ loss to Heat fails to answer lingering questions

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, in Miami. The Heat won 84-76. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

MIAMI — Unlike many coaches, Nick Nurse has never shied away from the idea of a regular-season measuring-stick game.

It’s a refreshing slant in a ‘just one of 82’ NBA season.

That some opponents offer a clearer window into the potential of your own team, that some games have more ‘juice’ than others hardly seems radical, but not everyone likes to hang things out there like that.

As the Toronto Raptors took the floor at American Airlines Arena for the game of the decade – well, their first game of the decade – against the Miami Heat, you could forgive Nurse this: what or who was he supposed to measure?

His leading scorer and leading scorer off the bench – Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell – were in Miami but only got shots up before the game. They remain ‘a ways away’ from returning from groin and shoulder injuries, respectively. Marc Gasol (hamstring) — the linchpin of their defence — is in the same boat.

So when Nurse is trying to decide between starting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Patrick McCaw (he went with McCaw) he could be excused for not wanting to put too much weight on this meeting between two of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.

“I think we all fall in the trap of ‘what is this going to mean down the line if we meet in the playoffs. Well, hopefully we’ll have our guys back and we’ll have totally different lineups and matchups and depth and all that kind of stuff,” said Nurse. “But that’s okay, it’s a long ways away. I still think we’re going to have good ball game tonight … with the lineup that we have we have to play very hard and very well and shoot the ball pretty good to make this a good game and that’s what I’m hoping happens tonight.”

It was not a good game, it turns out, if we’re measuring by aesthetics. And the ‘shoot the ball pretty good’ part?

That did not happen.

“That set basketball back years,” said Fred VanVleet in the Raptors’ locker room afterwards.

The Raptors looked like a team that has had one practice in two weeks and enjoyed an off-day in Miami following New Years’ Eve in Toronto. The Heat were content to play down to their level.

Miami played a basic 2-3 zone for most of the game – something you see in men’s league when everyone’s hungover – and the Raptors obliged by playing a basic high school offence in response: pitch the ball to the man at the foul line and let him score or pass to a baseline cutter if a second defender commits.

But the Raptors shooting abysmally from deep made the Heat’s decision to stay in the zone almost exclusively an easy one.

“We had a lot of good looks, but I’ve never been part of a game where we literally shot open looks and missed shots [like that],” said Kyle Lowry, who was 2-of-12 from deep all on his own, marring a 15-point eight-assist outing. “[VanVleet] had a couple go in and out, myself, Terence. I think OG made two and he was the only one that was [any] good from three.

“Good game plan, good zone by them, I guess.”

Lowry was on to something. In shooting 6-of-42 from three the Raptors became just the third team in NBA history to take 40 threes or more and make six or less. Put another way: It was the third worst high-volume three-point shooting performance of all time.


A lot was made before the game how this was an apt match-up between two championship-winning teams that came into being thanks to dearly departed former NBA commissioner David Stern, but this was neither team’s finest moment.

Passes went between teammates legs. There were multiple three-second violations, there were so many missed shots – and that’s just in the folder marked ‘Serge Ibaka.’ But that was the beauty of the Heat’s defensive approach – it required Raptors other than Lowry or VanVleet to score and make plays.

Good bet, it turns out.

All the Heat needed was a 9-0 stretch that pushed a four-point lead with 5:54 to play to 13 with 2:39 to play the wrap things up in the 84-76 Heat win that dropped the Raptors to 23-12 and improved the Heat’s record to 25-9.

The Raptors’ point total was a season-low and their 36 missed threes was a season-high.

But even after the loss if there is one lingering question that Nurse might want to have answered it’s a pretty big one: How good is his team?

The Raptors haven’t had a single game with their lineup intact all season and are third in man games lost to injury and yet came into south Florida just 1.5 games behind the Heat for third in the East.

Going a perfect 17-0 against sub .500 teams helps, but the Raptors’ 6-11 mark against teams prior to with winning records could be a red flag.

The Heat and the Raptors are two of the best stories in the NBA this season because they share so many similarities as teams that have exceeded low expectations.

But the Heat have had the benefit of some consistency throughout their lineup as it takes shape around prize off-season acquisition Jimmy Butler.

Nurse has been making things up on the fly, and Thursday night it showed.

“It is what it is. We want to play good against the better teams [and] you want to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat,” said VanVleet who shot 1-of-11 from deep and 3-of-16 from the floor. “We’re trying to win every night. I look our chances against anybody. Right now we’re in a rough spot. But it’s a process. We’ll get ourselves out of it. We’re trying to focus on the long haul. This is a part of the journey.”

The game had no stretch at all where either team flowed. The Heat led 20-18 after the first quarter and 43-39 at the half, scores that prompted the late commissioner Stern to legislate sweeping changes to open up the game in the first place. But they only work when teams can make shots.

The Raptors can take heart in that they held the Heat to 40.7 per cent shooting, but the Heat’s ultimate triumph might have been preventing the Raptors from turning those misses into transition opportunities. The Raptors are the best fast break team in the NBA, but had only one field goal in transition all night.

It wasn’t a big game after all. It turns out there were no lessons to glean from a shooting performance that was historically bad.

It was what it was.

Tonight was very, very ugly,” said VanVleet. “But we play again in two days. That’s what we look forward to.”


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