In their first game with fans at Scotiabank Arena in over a month the Toronto Raptors provided good entertainment for the people.
There were only 500 of them mind you, chosen from a draw held for season ticket holders, and whatever noise they did make was drowned out by the steady thrum of the piped music and crowd noise that has made Scotiabank Arena the loudest empty building ever, arguably.
But the Raptors were in need of any lift available, as they hosted the Miami Heat on the second night of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights.
The circumstances were the same for Miami, but the Heat play more five players, so presumably they were fresher.
It seems inevitable that the Raptors’ heavily-used starters and short bench will hit a wall at some point, but it wasn’t Tuesday against the Heat, who arrived with the second-best record in the East but just 1-1 in two recent hard-fought games against Toronto.
The two teams did it again, and for the second time in as many meetings the Raptors came out ahead, this time with a 110-106 win that improved their record to 26-23 and extended their winning streak to three.
Once again it was Gary Trent Jr. who provided the jet fuel, leading all scorers with 33 points as he knocked down 6-of-10 triples include a pair of crucial ones in the fourth quarter that helped give the Raptors just the separation they needed.
All five starters clocked in with 35 to 42 minutes and all ended up in double figures scoring. Fred VanVleet had 21 points and six assists while Pascal Siakam added 16 points and four rebounds. The Raptors shot 48 percent from the floor and 12-of-26 from deep. The Heat got 32 points from Bam Adebayo but connected on just eight of their 30 three-point attempts.
As has become their habit, the two clubs played each possession with something near playoff intensity. The game was within two possessions from the final minute of the third quarter until Trent Jr. happened again. The Raptors’ molten shooting guard cracked things open briefly midway through the fourth quarter when he hit a pair of threes over PJ Tucker, told him about it and then got Adebayo to foul him on a step-back three. It added up to a 7-0 run that gave Toronto a seven-point lead with 4:35 to play.
The rapid flurry put Trent Jr. over the 30-point mark for the fifth-straight game, joining DeMar DeRozan as the only Raptors to ever do that. One of the 500 fans in the building was Gary Trent Sr. who played briefly for the Raptors, an added touch.
The Raptors kept the pressure on. A three-point play by OG Anunoby put them up eight and a putback by Scottie Barnes (11 points, nine rebounds) kept it there with 1:43 to play.
But the Heat aren’t any different from the Raptors in that they play to the horn, not the scoreboard. A pair of buckets by Tyler Herro helped cut Toronto’s lead to two with 6.7 seconds to play, but the Raptors pushed back when Barnes found Anunoby for an alley-oop on an out-of-bounds play after a timeout to put the lead back to two possessions and seal it.
The steady stream of games and heavy minutes have afforded Nurse and the Raptors a good look at what level their top players can play at when healthy and available.
After waiting for most of the season to see them together, the Raptors starting unit – VanVleet, Barnes, Siakam, Anunoby and Trent Jr. – is suddenly Nurse’s most heavily played lineup, having logged 178 minutes over 11 games. Lineups featuring four starters and one of either Chris Boucher or Precious Achiuwa are the next three most frequently used lineups.
So a picture is emerging, if an incomplete one.
“They’re starting to fit together. They’re starting to get some good chemistry. I know it’s been a big topic of conversation, especially when five guys played 50-plus down at [Miami], ”Said Nurse. “We’ll see how long it goes. We went [to Atlanta on Monday and] we played nine guys pretty early… and then [the starters were] logging back in the mid-to-upper 30s, most of them. I’m OK with them. I do not think 35 to 40 is a big deal. ”
It’s not just been the minutes; it’s been who they’ve come against. Tuesday night’s game was the Raptors’ 10th in their past 12 starts against teams that are in the play-in tournament at worst, but also against some of the league’s best teams: Miami three times; Phoenix, Milwaukee, Dallas and a fast-rising Hawks club.
After Tuesday’s win, Toronto is 6-6, a mark that would have looked a lot better had the Raptors squeezed out wins against lottery-bound Detroit and the in-limbo Portland Trail Blazers.
In that context the emerging lineup data is reasonably encouraging. The starters surprisingly have a slightly negative net rating, giving up 1.7 more points per 100 possessions than they score. Lineups featuring Achiuwa instead of Siakam are – surprisingly given how well Siakam has been playing – very strong at +7.9 and with Achiuwa in place of Anunoby are +6.6. Lineups with Boucher instead of Anunoby are +20.5 in 92 minutes – a massive number likely bolstered by the Raptors’ blowout win over Charlotte on January 25th where Toronto was leading by 22 in the early going. Similarly, the starters being in negative territory is probably partly attributable to Toronto falling behind by 34 in the first half against Portland.
For his part, Achiuwa was the Raptors’ most impactful sub Tuesday as he chipped in 12 points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes against his old club. The Raptors bench was outscored by Miami 38-16 as they played 89 minutes to 50 for the Raptors second unit.
Overall the samples are still relatively small. But three games against the Heat in the space of two weeks do not lie.
“I think one of the things that this matchup has been recently, I think both games in Miami were hard-played games and super intense. I’m just kind of thinking back, it sure seems like we’ve had our share of those with each other, ”said Nurse. “I like it. I like it. They bring all this intensity and physicality and almost intimidation and all this kind of stuff. You need to see if your guys are going to bring it right back. It’s always such a great test to play them to see where they’re at. So, I love it. I’m sure they’ll bring it again tonight. Hopefully we will, too. ”
The Raptors did that, even though the legs were clearly heavy at times. The Heat controlled most of the first half with the Raptors having a difficult time accounting for Adebayo, who is clearly just rounding into shape after an extended absence due to thumb surgery. He and Siakam share a lot of attributes as playmaking bigs, it’s just that Adebayo is about two inches taller and 25 pounds heavier.
Adebayo had nine points in the first quarter and 19 at halftime, scored on the offensive glass, in transition and at the foul line as Toronto had no answer for him. The Heat opened up a 12-point lead at the end of first quarter and the Raptors could not quite reel them in as Miami sent extra defenders at VanVleet and Siakam and dared other Raptors to step up. Trent Jr. did, but his 17 first-half points were not enough to keep Miami from enjoying a 62-50 lead to start the third quarter.
Nurses’ starters were on the wrong end of it early as they were all between either -10 and -16 in the opening half. Things turned in the third with VanVleet having the most direct influence. By the end of the night the Raptors were on the right end of another win, which is all that matters.
• Tuesday marked the ninth straight game that the Heat were without Kyle Lowry, who has been out due to family matter dating back to Jan. 17, the Raptors’ first game against the Heat in this stretch.
“We understand all things we’re missing [from a basketball] standpoint, ”said Heat coach Eric Spoelstra. “But this is bigger than that. We stay connected. I communicate with him every day and everybody else as well. He’s part of our family. And I just want to be there for him. The basketball stuff we can work all that out. ”
• The Raptors are optimistic Khem Birch will be available within the week. He’s been out since Jan. 15 after undergoing surgery for a fractured nose he suffered early in the Raptors loss to the Detroit Pistons. He’s missed 26 of the Raptors’ 49 games this season with a knee problem, COVID protocols and now his nose. He’s been participating in workouts and is ramping back into shape.
“I just had a pretty long talk with him, and he seems to be OK,” said Nurse. “He wants to get out there and play. I think he’s pushing hard to come back and play as soon as possible. It’s not like he’s leaning back when they say, ‘Hey, maybe another week. He’s like, ‘No, maybe (it will be) shorter than that.’ He wants to play. ”
• The Raptors will have two participants at All-Star Weekend for sure. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam will find out Thursday if they get named to the Eastern Conference reserves by the coaches. Meanwhile, Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa will be among the 12 rookies and 12 second-year players playing in the Rising Stars event. The new format features four teams of six NBA players bolstered by four G-League Ignite players facing off in a three-game mini-tournament format.