In the Toronto Raptors’ final home game of the regular season, they faced a Miami Heat squad fighting for its postseason life – an opponent who gave the Raps a solid test of toughness before the playoffs.
Behind a 38-point night by DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors battled to a nail-biting 96-94 win, denying the hard-charging Heat in a playoff-like game.
The Heat came to Toronto still jockeying for the last two playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference with the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.
“Our guys want this,” insisted Heat coach Eric Spoelstra before the game.
Kyle Lowry was playing in just his second game back – his first at home – since missing the previous 21 games after surgery on his right wrist.
For the first six minutes of the night, the Raptors made just one of their first nine field-goal attempts, while Miami built a 10-3 lead.
Things seemed a little disjointed for Toronto at first. Lowry is still getting used to new starting power forward Serge Ibaka. When a pass from Lowry to Ibaka got intercepted, Lowry took a foul on the defensive end and got in Ibaka’s face for the error, trying to get the two on the same page.
But DeRozan caught fire midway through the first, scoring 16 points in six minutes and hoisting Toronto to a 26-19 lead. By halftime, DeRozan had extended that tally to 25 points as the defensively tough Raptors held a 53-43 lead.
Former Raptor James Johnson, a player many fans complained was underutilized during his time in Toronto, displayed why he’s a staple of the Heat’s starting lineup. Nearly 40 pounds lighter than he had been last year as a Raptor, Johnson was nabbing rebounds Friday night, playing physical defence, scoring and even throwing down one of his athletic dunks.
Late in the third quarter, Ibaka picked up his fourth foul and came out of the game. The Heat made a late charge in the period and the Raptors went a little cold offensively, managing just 17 points in the quarter. Suddenly, the Raptors led by just five.
Even though Dwyane Wade is no longer in Miami, shades of last year’s dramatic second-round playoff series between the Heat and Raptors were on display.
Jonas Valanciunas and Hassan Whiteside were tangling for rebounds and Goran Dragic was manufacturing steals and he and Lowry were stuck to one another like glue. With four minutes left, the game was tied.
“You definitely don’t want to see Miami in the first round,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said before the game.
This time though, Johnson added even more physicality for Miami, while Ibaka and P.J. Tucker gave Toronto more grit.
Even with home-court advantage in the playoffs already secured, the Raptors weren’t willing to rest players or ease up down the stretch – not at the risk of losing games. With Lowry’s late-season return, the team is trying to get the all-star point guard back in a groove, get Cory Joseph used to coming in for Lowry off the bench again, and get some semblance of a playoff rotation.
The two teams were separated by just four points in the final 25 seconds, and Ibaka had fouled out, so Valanciunas had to fill some rare fourth-quarter clutch-time minutes. Tucker, Joseph, DeRozan, Lowry and Patrick Patterson handled the dying seconds.
On Wednesday, Lowry had scored 27 points in 42 minutes, plus 10 assists, five boards and two steals, spearheading Toronto’s come-from-behind win over the Detroit Pistons.
This time, he had 12 points, six assists and seven rebounds over 36 minutes. Joseph had 14 points, while Ibaka had 11 points and nine boards, and Valanciunas had nine points and 10 rebounds.
“They’re a championship-contending team, said Spoelstra of the Raptors.
Johnson had 22 points and 10 boards, leading the way for Miami.
The Raptors (49-31) conclude the season on the road this week, visiting the New York Knicks on Sunday and the Cavaliers on Wednesday in Cleveland.Report Typo/Error