An Erik Spoelstra-coached team with Dwyane Wade looking for a swan song, the Heat are lurking at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket like quicksand, ready to draw the Raptors and their splendid regular season into the muck.
Remember the Heat pushing the Raptors to seven grind-it-out games in the second round of the 2016 playoffs?
Yeah, like that, except in the first round.
For every Raptors perceived strength, the Heat game plan would have answer.
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Want to slow down DeMar DeRozan?
Give him a steady dose of Justice Winslow pressuring him on the perimeter and steering him into the giant paws of Hassan Whiteside, lurking in the paint, turning all those floaters into prayers, and doing it all without bailing DeRozan out by putting him on free-throw line.
Want an antidote for Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry? Have him deal with Heat all-star point guard Goran Dragic running it down his throat all night.
C.J. Miles rolling, hitting 15 of his last 23 triples over four games?
Well, few teams can follow a scouting report better than the Heat. And if the game plan calls for the Raptors sharp-shooter to be run off the line, challenging him to put it on the floor and take his chances against Whiteside in behind, that’s what they’re going to do.
Guess what? Miles was 2-of-10 from three with bodies flying at him from all angles.
It worked well for about 40 of 48 minutes in the Raptors’ 115-112 win over the visiting Heat at Air Canada Centre. Toronto exploded for a 19-4 run in the last eight minutes of the third quarter that was the difference in the game. But it was the only stretch where the Raptors looked like the Raptors, and the Heat didn’t look like a team that could give Toronto or anyone in the East everything they could handle in a playoff series.
The Heat are one of only four teams to beat the Raptors at home, but are the only team to have pushed them to the limit twice.
Miami responded to the Raptors surge with a 31-17 fourth quarter that made a seeming blowout a one-possession game in the final moments. It was hard for the Raptors – even as they stretched their winning streak to six games and seven at home – to look at outcome as a confidence booster.
“Terrible win,” said DeRozan, who was held without a field goal in the fourth and only got the free-throw line six times as the he needed 25 shots to get his game-high 27 points, while being hounded into three turnovers.
The win did improve the Raptors record to 40-16 and guarantee them first-place at the all-star break, regardless of the outcome of their game Wednesday at Chicago. But the way the Raptors were manhandled by the Heat for long stretches erased any satisfaction all-star head coach Dwane Casey might have taken from the accomplishment.
“I’m upset, even though we won, because I know what’s coming around the corner,” he said. “[It’s] like you’re going down a dark alley. Here comes a group of guys with a baseball bat and you say, ‘Oh, hey, where’s the baseball game?’ It’s 12 o’clock at night. You [should] know what’s coming around the corner.
“Again, for us, we’ve got to have attention to detail, closing out games and not getting hit over the head with a bat at 12 o’clock at night.”
The Heat (30-27) are a half game behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 7 spot in the East. They don’t sound like a team at all concerned about meeting the Raptors in an alley at any time, or any place else.
They have their success against them so far this year and their seven-game series from two years ago to draw on and they have an identity locked down as a hard-playing, well-coached team that expects to compete against anyone.
“I think we play hard and we don’t care about matchups or the accolades other teams have,” said Heat forward and former Raptor James Johnson, who led all bench scorers with 16. “And you have to understand that if you’re coming to play us. We’re going to play hard, keep the game in our wheelhouse and as best we can, make it on our terms.”
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To their credit, the Raptors pushed the Heat to the limit of their comfort zone. Their third-quarter run showed how Toronto can split a game open. The Raptors upped the pace, forced the Heat into a number of turnovers — Miami coughed up 16 for 28 points on the night — and got some big shots from both their second unit and their starters alike.
But that slip only served to reinforce for Miami how it needs to play to be successful against Toronto, not to shake its confidence in its ability to do it.
“We’re always close,” said Dragic, who finished with 28 points and scored on a triple and a runner off a couple of late stops to pull the Heat within three with 90 seconds to play. “Even when we played in the playoffs it was always close. They have a great record. They play tremendously. That’s why they have the best record in the East. But at the same time we feel no one want to play against us in a seven-game series.”
As they have climbed to the Eastern Conference summit, the Raptors have been making it look easy lately. Most of the season, really. They came in having not only having won five straight but having won by at least 15 points in all five games – a franchise record. Their starting lineup never played a minute in the fourth quarter over the stretch.
But Tuesday night wasn’t easy. Just like the teams’ previous meeting where the Heat managed to dominate the tempo, holding Toronto to 89 points in their own building, 23 points under their season average at the ACC. Just like it wasn’t easy two years ago when the Heat pushed the Raptors to their limit in the second round.
Through 56 games no Raptors team has ever been better, and the best should be to come.