Raptors gain ground in play-in race with key win over Heat

Scottie Barnes had 22 points and dished out a career-high 12 assists, Pascal Siakam put up a 26-9-5 line, and the Toronto Raptors defeated the Miami Heat 106-92.

When the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat played a pair of close games in South Florida at the outset of the 2022-23 season, you didn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that the final regular-season meeting between them would mean something.

It seems like Heat-Raptors games have always meant something. In October, they split the first of the new (for this season) two-game, same-market, baseball-style series.

The games were played with a significant enough level of intensity that there was even a fight, with Raptors rookie Christian Koloko getting tangled up with Caleb Martin, and ejections following – not typical October basketball. 

 “That’s typically how the game goes with Toronto,” said Martin at the time. “It’s a chippy back and forth.”

Five months later the stakes are a little higher, but still not what either team thought they would be.

It’s been a disappointing season for both clubs. Rather than fighting for homecourt in the first round, they are battling for positioning in the play-in tournament, the format now in its third full season as a permanent feature on the NBA calendar.

But no one was turning their nose up. Typically, teams in the bottom reaches of the NBA playoff picture are like dogs chasing cars in the post-season – they don’t last long.

But the Heat remain ambitious, the Raptors optimistic.

“The play-in tournament has been a great thing,” said long-time Raptors star Kyle Lowry, who came off the bench for the Heat as the just-turned 37-year-old manages his minutes with a knee problem that kept him out of 15 games beginning in early February.

“Every team has a has an opportunity for the playoffs and for us, we know what we want to play, we just got to get there and get to that situation, and we can’t worry about this happened, that happened. We got to worry about literally tonight, and tonight only. I think that’s where we could be more successful as a group.

“… Where our team is, we just need to continue to be competitive,” Lowry said. “I think the one thing about we have really good experience and we’re a good enough team to know what we need to do to try to win basketball games so we just gotta go out there and do it.”

The Raptors remain similarly convinced that getting in the playoffs – two of the four teams in the play-in tournament are eliminated and head for the draft lottery – is just a detail and that their real selves will show when they get to the real thing.

The Raptors took a big step Tuesday night with a solid 106-92 win over Miami that pulled them within two games of the seventh-place Heat with six games to play. Having the tiebreaker in hand should help too, although that they don’t have the tie-breaker with the Atlanta Hawks, who remain in eighth place with the same record as Toronto, could end up being the difference.

Another issue for the Raptors: their next five games are on the road and feature a stop in Philadelphia and two games in Boston sandwiched around a pair of games in Charlotte before coming home to host the Milwaukee Bucks.

Not easy, but a team can dream about superstars resting for the playoffs or something.

Toronto caught a break Tuesday when Heat star Jimmy Butler sat out with a sore neck, but the Raptors played like they were ready for anybody as they improved to 38-38 with a 3-1 homestand, the first time they’ve been at the breakeven mark since Dec. 9.

The Raptors were sparked by Scottie Barnes, who scored 12 of his 22 points in the opening quarter and beasted the Heat all night while adding a career-high 12 assists, seven rebounds, three steals and not committing a single turnover.  

“We ran the same play about three times in a row [in the second half],” said coach Nick Nurse, referring to how the Raptors were able to take advantage of Barnes’ passing to solve the Heat zone. “It was hit Scottie at the free throw line, and he was wheeling and dealing from there. His size lets him be open even if they put a guy with him you can still kind of throw it up and he can still catch it.”

Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby finished with 26 and 22 points, respectively, while combining for 10 more assists, the box score a perfect encapsulation of what the Raptors hope they can get from their trio of big wings if they are firing on all cylinders.

“I think that it all boils down to some good spacing, cutting, passing, catching, finishing,” said Nurse, whose team had 32 assists on 45 field goal attempts. “I  think we were pretty good in our cutting, pretty good locations of our spacing, our relocations of our spacing, and those guys I thought did a good job of getting off the basketball.”

Said Barnes: “Every game is different, teams play defence differently. Today I was just finding reads, making plays. Like I said, everybody was in the right spots and people was making shots. There was corner threes, back doors. They were double-teaming out of the post so cutting, everything just worked out well today”

The Raptors overall were just 8-of-36 from deep for the game but were able to overcome that by generating a 15-12 edge in offensive rebounds and a 15-9 edge in turnovers.

The Heat were led by Tyler Herro, who finished with 33 points and made six threes on 10 tries but was victimized by the Raptors on defence whenever they got a chance. Miami shot 10-of-33 from three and fell to 40-36.

It wasn’t the most triumphant of returns for Lowry, who is in the second year of a three-year contract worth $85 million. He’s struggled by his standards this season – his 11.6 points a game is his lowest average since 2009-10 and his 40.7 shooting percentage is his weakest since 2012-13. He had started every game he played since 2013-14 until his recent move to the bench. His level of play, his injuries and his contract have put him under the microscope in Miami in a way he wasn’t in Toronto other than perhaps in his first season with the Raptors when he was in a battle for starters minutes with Jose Calderon. 

Lowry finished with six points, five rebounds and two assists in 25 minutes on Tuesday.

“For me, it’s just continuing to try to get better, you’re in a different role and I’m still on a minutes restriction,” he said.  “So just kind of, you know, making myself available to play the minutes I’m allotted right now and make sure I’m healthy to be effective in those minutes.”

Lowry didn’t see his first action until the start of the second quarter and by then the tone of the game had already been established. The Raptors were revved up to make a statement against a rival team on U.S. national television and give themselves a chance to move up the standings all in one swoop.

The Raptors trailed 14-4 before the game was four minutes old but stormed all the way back with a 20-9 finish that was punctuated when Barnes made a steal on the Victor Oladipo and took the ball the length of the floor for a buzzer-beating dunk that brought the crowd to its feet and gave the second-year pro 12 points in the quarter.

With a wide-open laneway on Sunday, Barnes had unleashed a 360 to the delight of the Raptors bench and the Scotiabank Arena crowd equally. On this occasion it was more utilitarian: hard, fast and no risk.  

“If somebody is close to you, just get the ball in the basket as fast as possible.” said Barnes, who also had a highlight play when he rose high to put back an offensive rebound in the first half. “If you’re open then things start going through your mind of what you wanna do.

Lowry was his typical self in the second quarter, but it didn’t lead to much offence for Miami. He drove the lane and put a nice pass in the hands of Cody Zeller, who travelled. He made a steal only to watch Zeller miss the lay-up in transition. The Heat’s main offence came from the three-point line with Herro nailing three triples and Max Strus a fourth. The Raptors only hit one three in the half on 16 tries but it didn’t matter. They worked for a 10-6 advantage in offensive rebounds, an 8-2 edge in turnovers and went 22-of-35 on their two-point attempts as the Raptors led 53-47 at half.

Toronto pushed the gap wider in the third and played one of their most complete quarters of the season, arguably. The Heat went zone for long stretches – no surprise given Toronto’s three-point shooting woes – but the Raptors were ready for it. The ball moved from side to side and inside out and when the defence was sufficiently jumbled, Toronto would attack. One such sequence was Anunoby driving the lane and finding a cutting Precious Achiuwa for a dunk as the Raptors showed signs of coming back to life after a protracted stretch of indifferent play.

On the next possession the ball kept moving until Anunoby got it with space and knocked down a triple that extended Toronto’s lead to 19 before Lowry was able to lure Achiuwa into a foul just before the end of the quarter. He made the free throws, but Toronto was up 84-67 to start the fourth.

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The Heat have played more close games than any team in the NBA with 22 of their games decided by three points or less in which they are 14-8. It looked like they might try to drag the Raptors into their comfort zone. An 11-2 run cut Toronto’s lead to 10 but the Heat missed a great chance to cut it even closer when they missed four good looks on one possession, culminating with a wide-open corner three from Lowry that went long.

The Raptors scored on their next four possessions and were able to win in decisive fashion, not something they’ve been able to say very often when it comes to games against Miami. They can only hope it bodes well as they try to finish their schedule with some play-in – and hopefully playoff – momentum.

“Every game’s important, we need every single one of these games to put ourselves in a better position, so, just gotta keep going out and defending every single night, bring our own energy when we go to other places,” said Barnes. “That’s gonna be our carryover, being able to bring our energy, bring effort each and every single game and just try to get that win.”

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