The schedule says the Toronto Raptors are playing the Miami Heat twice this week in another one of the "baseball style" series the NBA has thrown into the mix to limit travel during this strange, pandemic-altered season.
But who are they playing, really?
The Heat made it to the NBA Finals in the bubble last October and earned their way there on merit. Were it not for injuries to Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, they might have pushed the Los Angeles Lakers further than they already did.
With most of their key players returning and with some young, improving core pieces, the Heat are considered contenders to reach the Finals again.
But the team that arrived in Tampa for games on Wednesday night and again on Friday showed up with a limp. Jimmy Butler and Avery Bradley were out due to health and safety protocols, while Tyler Herro was out with a neck problem. Only two players in the Heat's rotation haven’t missed a game so far this season. Butler, their star, has played just six.
So just as opponents looking at the Raptors' losing record shouldn’t read too much into it, the sub-.500 mark the Heat arrived with wasn’t fooling Toronto either.
But then again, the Raptors weren’t really themselves either as they tip-toed their way to a 111-102 loss where they seemed to lack the spark that had marked their previous half-dozen games in which they were 4-2, with both losses coming down to the final horn.
“I think we were just a half, quarter count behind on a lot tonight,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I didn't think we were getting up the floor quick enough.
"I thought we weren't moving as well as they were moving. They played hard, and they were really active and we weren't quite active enough.”
Sometimes it’s the jerseys as much as who is in them. The Heat have always made a project of protecting the paint – they lead the NBA in that category so far this season – and forcing the opposition to run expert offence to score. They have one of the most effective zone defences in the league and they guard against transition. If you’re not shooting well, it’s going to be a long night.
The Raptors got a taste of all that as their three-game winning streak was snapped, dropping them to 5-9 on the season. Meanwhile, Miami improved to 6-7 and took over the eighth seed in the East.
Toronto got the full flavour of Miami basketball in the fourth quarter when the Raptors went scoreless for six minutes, ruining their own defensive effort as the Heat were able to pull away to a double-digit lead despite scoring just eight points themselves in the first half of the final period. A Pascal Siakam jumper with 5:17 left broke the seal as Toronto pulled within nine, but that seemed to spark the Heat too as they got three quick triples to push the lead back to 15 with 2:53 left, and Toronto couldn't mount a threat from there.
“I think we generated some good shots for a lot of the game,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who led Toronto with 24 points on 7-of-18 shooting. “I think obviously down the stretch there … we got stuck there for a while. So when it’s just pass, pass, pass, shot, three, there’s going to be ups and downs with that, and unfortunately all our misses came at the same time …. And obviously when you do that against the zone it’s kind of a snowball effect, they get more aggressive and as an offence you kind of get on your heels a little bit.”
The Raptors shot just 6-of-21 from the floor in the fourth quarter and 39.8 per cent for the game, dragged down by 16-of-49 shooting from deep – no formula to dismantle a zone. Add in the fact the Heat limited Toronto to just six fast break points and it’s bit of a wonder how Toronto scored as many points as they did.
Another area of concern is how Siakam will be feeling. The Raptors forward fell awkwardly after being hit on a dunk in the first half. He seemed to have tweaked his groin – an injury that cost him 11 games last season – but continued to play. He’s going to monitor it, however.
“Just a little scary fall,” said Siakam, who finished with 18 points and six rebounds. “I mean, my groin’s been bothering me for a little bit unfortunately, so that was definitely unfortunate, but yeah, I will see what we can do tomorrow, [and] see where we’re at."
With the Heat on tap for a return date on Friday night before the Raptors travel to Indiana for a pair of games against Pacers on Sunday and Monday, one quirk of the strange schedule is the opportunity to immediately correct mistakes and see if those fixes can play out on the floor in real time, almost like a playoff series.
“Hopefully we’re going to be pretty determined the next time the ball goes up and that’s part of playoff basketball, too,” Nurse said. “You take one on the chin, you dig in … hopefully we’re ready to get out and move a little faster, push the ball a little harder, snap the passes and cover for each other a little bit better defensively. That’s part of when you see a team twice in a row, a big part of it.”
The momentum the Raptors brought into the game was absent in the early going. Offensively, Toronto was fine – they were up 15-11 thanks to seven quick points from Kyle Lowry – but even against a short-handed Heat lineup they didn’t keep up defensively, which had been the backbone of their wee winning streak.
Miami started a 23-5 run that put them up 11 early in the second quarter, by which time Toronto had given up seven made-threes to Miami. It was who was making the shots that was more telling, as Heat gunner Duncan Robinson – by any measure one of the top three shooters in the sport – was able to find his way freely to make four on four attempts in the first quarter alone. Lowry, it turns out, scored just one more point the rest of the way, finishing with eight on 2-of-12 shooting.
The Heat’s depth was shining through too, as back-up guard Kendrick Nunn popped off for 13 of his Heat-best 28 points in the second quarter alone -- all of it coming on just 12 shots. It was another theme of the night as the Raptors' bench was outscored 48-31.
But the Raptors stiffened as they fought back to take a 58-56 lead into the half, sparked by their own depth pieces as Terence Davis erupted for 13 points in the quarter on three triples and two dunks – one converting his own steal – in his best run of play of the season. He finished with 16 and three steals to boot.
There were other bright spots too, as OG Anunoby continued his strong play of late with 15 points and four triples on eight attempts, while VanVleet led Toronto with 24 points. But it wasn’t enough.
The Heat played their style – regardless of their available personnel – and the Raptors couldn’t solve it.
They get a chance again on Friday night.