Whatever the Toronto Raptors ultimately end up being in the post-Kyle Lowry era, there have been some signs during the first half of an uneven season of what they could be, and what they want to be.
They haven’t come in buckets, and they haven’t come easily, but they offer some promise and some hope. At the halfway point of a difficult, transitional year, those glimpses have been as welcome as Fred VanVleet’s All-Star quality season, or Pascal Siakam showing the league again why he was an All-Star and All-NBA player just two seasons ago.
You could see it for a decent stretch in the second quarter of their first meeting with the Miami Heat since the two franchises coordinated on a deal that delivered Lowry to Miami in exchange for Precious Achiuwa and the contract that is Goran Dragic.
With VanVleet – who has more than ably filled Lowry’s considerable shoes – on the bench for a rest, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse rolled out a lineup featuring a "backcourt" of Siakam and Scottie Barnes, with OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher and Achiuwa across the front line. No one shorter than six-foot-eight, no one taller than six-foot-nine.
The Heat quite sensibly went zone against a group of players that don’t shoot threes well as a collective, and the Raptors just played right through it.
Siakam – who has been outstanding as a playmaker since becoming the team’s defacto backup point guard in recent weeks – drove into the paint and fired a laser out to the suddenly emerging Boucher, who knocked down a triple. Barnes galloped out on the break and found Boucher streaking in transition, and then whipped a no-look pass to Siakam in the lane for a score on the next possession. As the shot clock ticked down on another possession, Siakam whirled through the lane from the left block and scored.
And when the shots didn’t fall, the Raptors' length and hustle earned them offensive rebounds and extra possessions. Defensively, the length of the Raptors five caused all kinds of problems for Miami.
For that stretch of second quarter – about five minutes with VanVleet on the bench – the Raptors were the better team, built a lead and you could allow yourself to imagine that, hey, this could work: Toronto could lose five of their top six players from their championship team in 2019 over the space of two seasons, with only Achiuwa to show for it, and somehow transition back to their long-held spot among the Eastern Conference elite, but playing a slightly unconventional lineup with neither a traditional centre or standard point guard.
And they kept it going for most of what was a taut, tough, tight game – the third time in their last four starts Toronto has faced off against the NBA’s elite and gave them everything they could handle.
They fell just short this time, losing 104-99 to Miami 48 hours after upsetting the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on the road.
A deep three by VanVleet had cut the Heat's lead to three, after Toronto had trailed by nine with 5:33 to play, but Miami quelled the comeback. They went back up six when a mix up on pick-and-roll coverage between Barnes and VanVleet – and a poor read by Boucher – yielded a wide-open three by PJ Tucker off penetration from Jimmy Butler. Bam Adebayo sealed it from the line for Miami, as he returned to their lineup for the first time after missing six weeks following thumb surgery.
The Raptors dropped to 21-20 with the loss before they travel to Dallas to continue their five-game road trip on Wednesday. The Heat improved to 28-16, good for second place in the East. The Raptors went all out, playing just six players, for the most part. They were led by another brilliant night from Siakam, who finished with 20 points, 10 assists and five steals, while Boucher had 21 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, VanVleet had 22 points and six made threes and Achiuwa had 15 rebounds in 37 minutes against his old team.
But the Heat held Toronto to 41 per cent shooting and shot 47.4 per cent themselves, while Tyler Herro came off the bench to score 23 and Butler finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the triple-double.
The Raptors fought and it didn’t come easily and, in that way, it was a fitting end to the first half their season, and perhaps a jumping off point for the second half.
“I think we know what we have to do,” said Siakam, who record 10 assists for the second straight game. “I think today it could go either way, like, a couple of mistakes; a couple little things and it's a different game. So, I just feel like we know what type of team we are. If we play to our strength. If we bring that intensity a lot of teams won’t want to play us if we have that mentality and we come out aggressive, being the aggressor and playing hard every single night.”
Injuries, Covid, their home market on lockdown and an empty building. The post-Lowry era has gotten off to a less-than-ideal start in Toronto.
“It's been tough man, I gotta say that,” said Nurse. “I think for the four seasons that I've been in as head coach, this one has seemed to be the toughest. And I know that maybe seems weird, you know, played in the bubble, playing last year in Tampa. This one has kind of … there's [been] some stark downs, man.
"And it's been a battle to kind of pick everybody up or pick yourself up here, being honest … I don't really have an explanation for that other than the fact that this wave of [the pandemic] maybe caught us all off guard and we were thinking we were back to normal and we were ready to go and then we turn around and there's no fans in the building and, you know, we're sitting guys out all over the place and all those things are back to super high levels.”
A trip to the sunny south was well-timed then, but the vibe was even a little bit strange at FTX Arena. There had been a fair amount of anticipation around the Raptors' first trip to Miami and their first opportunity to play against Lowry, an icon with the franchise after nine wildly successful seasons in Toronto.
But a family issue meant he had to leave Miami to attend to it, and so the prospect of the Greatest Raptor of All-time confronting his old team for the first time will have to wait, perhaps until the two teams are scheduled to meet again in Miami again on Jan. 29.
But even without Lowry in the building, the first meeting between the Raptors and a team that looks well-ensconced among the top of the Eastern Conference – that just happens to fall at the midway point of the season – provides an opportunity to reflect.
On paper, the Raptors deserve to be proud of getting to the midway point of the season with a better-than-.500 record, given that they’ve had the top-eight members of their rotation intact for just four games so far.
Naturally, the Raptors announced that big man Khem Birch would be out 10 to 14 days after having surgery to repair his broken nose and Gary Trent Jr. would miss his fifth consecutive game with a sore ankle. They got Barnes back, but the reality is the Raptors don’t have that many options when players are hurt.
The Raptors did just enough of that to keep the game on a razor’s edge through three quarters. The Heat responded to Toronto’s second-quarter surge with a push of their own with a 25-14 run to take a 58-51 lead into the half.
The Raptors kept at it, getting contributions from as many places as possible, considering Nurse didn’t go deeper than seven in his rotation. VanVleet sparked the Raptors with a pair of deep triples while the Raptors were able to hold the Heat to just 40.9 per cent shooting in the third, with only Herro able to shake loose consistently as Toronto was able to keep in touch, trailing 80-75.
The Raptors pushed the Heat to the limit, but the better, deeper and more experienced team won, even in the absence of Lowry. Still, in the Raptors' willingness to battle, they showed that a little bit of Lowry’s spirit has stayed with them.
We’ll see where it all takes them in the second half of a most interesting year.