Raptors lose in spite of Kyle Lowry’s scorching return

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Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 116-108 loss to the Miami Heat.

One — Chasing: The Raptors were chasing all the way after a blistering first quarter where the Raptors nailed nine threes. The Heat are always a frustrating opponent, armed with long defenders, tricky shotmakers, and one of the most innovative coaches in the league, and they fended off a half-dozen comeback attempts. The Raptors played well for stretches, and showed great ball movement leading to pretty baskets, yet their defense just wasn’t fully solid. There were too many instances where the Heat just slid through their fingers, slipping free on their off-ball screening, exploiting the Raptors in transition, or simply by getting to the offensive glass.

Two — Exceptional: Aside from LeBron James, there has not been a single player more devastating for the Raptors defense than Jimmy Butler. The numbers don’t always show it, but he always finds a way to deliver when it matters most against the Raptors. Butler scored 12 straight points for the Heat to close the fourth quarter, and found Bam Adebayo rolling to the rim for the game-clinching dunk. Butler was also the Heat’s best defender, intercepting passes with ease and getting the Heat out on the break. But what really hurt the Raptors was his perimeter shooting. Coming into the game, Butler had made a total of four threes on the season, yet he went 3-of-4 tonight. This performance brought back dark memories of Butler from the Chicago Bulls days, most notably the time he broke one of Michael Jordan’s franchise records with 40 points in the second half.

Three — Unique: What also frustrated the Raptors was the Heat’s usage of zone defense. This should come as no surprise, as the Heat have consistently featured zone as a main pillar of their coverages, and to the Raptors’ credit they did have several gorgeous passing sequences to find the open shooter. But what makes the Heat’s zone difficult is the length they put at the top of the floor, along with the inverted nature of their strategy with three players on top instead of the standard two. That made it practically impossible for the Raptors to play their pick-and-roll game and get anyone heading downhill into the paint, and forced the Raptors into living and dying by the three. The Raptors hit 20 threes and still that wasn’t enough to win, which just goes to show how good the Heat were at locking down the paint.

Four — Attrition: Another factor in the loss was the sheer difference in volume of offense. The Heat won both the turnover battle (14-11) and secured more offensive rebounds (11-3) which allowed the Heat to attempt six more field goals and 12 more free throws. The Raptors were fairly efficient once they got a shot off, but the Heat sustained themselves by securing the glass, and by creating second chances. Case in point: The Raptors stopped the Heat twice with a minute left in a six-point game, but both times the Heat were able to secure the rebound. On the third attempt, Butler finally found Adebayo for a layup. Maybe it was just fatigue with the Raptors playing their third game in four nights, but the Heat’s size advantage was also very noticeable.

Five — Sharp: There was no rust at all for Kyle Lowry, who was by far the best player for the Raptors. Lowry was scoring to start, nailing a pair of deep triples to announce his return from his thumb injury, and he carried it through the entire night. He tore holes in the Heat’s defense, dropped 30-foot bombs against their zone, made the right reads for his teammates, and generally did a good job of playing Butler towards help defenders. It hardly needs to be said, but the Raptors are clearly better with Lowry, and the 16-1 record without him is more of an accomplishment to be appreciated, rather than something to read into.

Six — Leader: The broadcast picked up a conversation late in the third quarter between Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher. Adebayo had beaten Aron Baynes off the dribble, and Boucher was late to help at the basket which conceded the foul. VanVleet told Boucher that it just wasn’t good enough, and Boucher took it in stride. VanVleet then led by example by getting to the foul line on back-to-back possessions, before finishing the quarter with a miraculous turnaround jumper. VanVleet matched Lowry every step of the way, and it’s such a blessing to have both point guards to maintain the level of play for both lineups.

Seven — Sloppy: This was a night to forget for Pascal Siakam. He made just one shot and was stapled to the bench for the entire fourth quarter. Siakam forced it early even though the Heat swarmed him with extra bodies, and his nagging habit of leaving his feet to pass only led to turnovers. His second shift was an outright disaster, with Siakam picking up two quick fouls just reaching on Butler on the perimeter, before barrelling into Kelly Olynyk for his fourth foul in just the first half. Siakam had been on such a good run of late, with several All-Star level performances against tough playoff teams, and for whatever reason he just didn’t have it tonight.

Eight — Explanation: Even with Siakam struggling, it’s still strange to see a max player outright benched. The camera panned to the Raptors bench during timeouts in the fourth quarter, and all of the substitutes would be huddled around Nurse’s clipboard with the exception of Siakam who stayed seated in the back. Nurse says it was just an instance of giving Siakam some rest on a night where he clearly didn’t have much to give, which might be a more common sight in the second half of the season with the schedule being compressed. Siakam had played over 40 minutes in both games against the Sixers.

Nine — Bullied: The trouble with benching Siakam is that the Raptors become very undersized and much less versatile on defense, especially if they still want to run smallball lineups with Anunoby as the center. On the final basket for the Heat, the help assignment fell to Terence Davis on the baseline to contest Adebayo at the basket, which obviously favored the center over the guard. Siakam is a game-changing defender when he is locked in, and it’s important for him to not get bogged down with cold nights offensively so that his defense can remain a factor. The Raptors finished the game with Anunoby as the center, Davis as the nominal power forward, Norman Powell as the small forward, with Lowry and VanVleet rounding out the bunch. It’s no surprise they couldn’t get rebounds when needed.

Ten — Inconsistent: With the Raptors fully healthy, the challenge falls to Nurse’s coaching staff to devise a workable rotation. Nurse extended his rotation to 12 players, similar to the last back-to-back against the Timberwolves, and the results were just as spotty. Outside of Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes, there just wasn’t a reliable contributor for the Raptors. Matt Thomas made a nice pass on the baseline, Davis hit two threes, and the rest of the guys were mostly floating. One issue is that the bench is largely comprised of gun-shy defensive players, in which DeAndre’ Bembry, Pat McCaw, and Stanley Johnson offer redundancies in skillsets that become liabilities in duplicate with all of them not looking to score.

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