The Toronto Raptors (16-16) have been on quite a roll lately, but even a red hot Raptors squad wasn't quite enough to unseat the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, particularly in the cozy confines of American Airlines Arena. A 102-97 Sunday night loss in Miami snapped the club's five-game win streak, but it also further established a team that continues to demand respect in the East.
Toronto's five-point loss to Miami represented their smallest final deficit in 14 games against the Big Three era Heat. Still, it was an unfortunate result for a visiting side that led by the same amount after three quarters. In the fourth, however, Miami opened on a 13-2 run and got 10 points from LeBron James en route to the narrow win. A late Jonas Valanciunas lay-up pulled the Raps to within two, but that's as close as they would get.
DeRozan (Almost) Keeps Up with LeBron
LeBron vs. DeMar DeRozan, in stats: 30 points to 26, 12-18 shooting to 11-19, four rebounds to four, five assists to seven, 37:47 of playing time to 37:59. Four more points on one less shot gives the Heat superstar the ever-so-slight edge, but credit DeRozan with keeping pace. This wasn't just a one-off, either. DeRozan owns an 18.3 points per game career average against the Heat, third-most against any opponent.
The Starting Frontline
There were few aspects of Sunday's narrow contest that were significantly in favour of either squad. One such element was the battle of the starting big men. While Miami was represented by an ineffective Chris Bosh (2-9 shooting) and a barely visible Rashard Lewis (two points and four fouls in 11 minutes), Toronto received standout performances by both Valanciunas (17 points on 7-8 shooting and five rebounds) and frontcourt-mate Amir Johnson (17 points on 7-13 shooting, eight rebounds and three blocks).
Fourth Quarter Struggles
The Raptors have been outscored by double digits in the fourth quarter of each of the past two games. Now, two games is hardly a large enough sample size to identify any type of meaningful trend, particularly after the club had outscored their opposition by 39 points in the final 12 minutes of their previous four contests. Still, top teams reign supreme when the game is on the line and Toronto will still need to learn how to close out their opponents when it counts.
Leaning on the Starting Five
Many have looked at Toronto's tough early schedule as a positive sign, believing that it serves as an encouraging predictor for future success when the schedule inevitably eases. Yet, the reverse can be argued for the club's health / rotation depth. With Tyler Hansbrough out again for the Raps, it marked only the seventh time this season that a player has not been available to the team due to injury. That surely isn't sustainable, particularly when their starting five are logging such heavy minutes on a nightly basis (Terrence Ross saw the least court time of the five starters, at 33:34). Dwane Casey must find some reliability within the second unit beyond Patrick Patterson, as John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez and co. just haven't offered any signs of consistency.
The Raps will stick around in Miami for one additional night (and who wouldn't) to avoid some of the winter weather wrecking havoc further north. Still, it will be a dicey travel day on Monday as they try to make their way to Indiana.
The Heat appear to be 1-2 on their reclamation projects, with Greg Oden continuing to disappoint (the former No. 1 over-all hasn't gotten into a game yet for Miami) and Michael Beasley opening eyes. Beasley, who scored 17 points on 7-12 shooting in just over 20 minutes off the bench vs. Toronto, currently ranks fifth among NBA small forwards in PER (Player Efficiency Rating), according to ESPN.
If the Heat are tough to beat at home (they've lost just three games this season at the AAA), the Pacers are near-impossible, having lost just once at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this year (their only loss came to the Detroit Pistons, who somehow managed to knock off the Heat at home). Anyway, Raps are in Indy on Tuesday night (7:00pm, SN360).
Prediction: Pacers 97, Raps 96 (17-7 this season)