Raptors even series vs. Heat, but they’re not going anywhere like this – CBSSports.com

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TORONTO — Thursday morning, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra predicted that the Toronto Raptors would have an “incredible response” after losing Game 1 at home. He cautioned that there is a misconception about teams having “letdowns” in the playoffs when usually losses are more about the opponent playing well.

“They were second in the East, a game and a half away from having home-court [advantage] all the way through,” Spoelstra said. “They had eight more wins than us during the regular season for a reason. They’re a damn good team.”

Everything Spoelstra said was correct, even if the Raptors haven’t looked that damn good lately. If you didn’t watch Game 2, you might think that Spoelstra was prophetic and Toronto rose to the occasion to get the win it needed. If you did watch it, you know that would be an extremely generous reading of the situation.

Toronto saved its season on Thursday with a 96-92 overtime victory, but the performance was not particularly persuasive. The questions about the Raptors before playoffs were the same before this series — can their starting backcourt produce like they did in the regular season, can they play with poise when they need to, can they continue to count on their depth and their ability to draw fouls? — and they remain largely unanswered.

In the first quarter, the Raptors forced 11 turnovers, eight of them of the live-ball variety. The way the Heat were stumbling and fumbling, Toronto’s 10-point lead heading into the second quarter seemed small. Miami cut the deficit to just seven points by halftime almost by accident — it just stopped giving away extra possessions. In the second and third quarters, the Raptors shot a miserable 14 for 41 with two assists, and the Heat took a two-point lead into the fourth.

Going into the final frame, it felt like a typical Toronto playoff game. The Raptors’ opponents appeared to give them ample opportunity to separate themselves, and they couldn’t quite do it. With four minutes left, Toronto trailed 80-74, and a 10-0 run came out of nowhere: center Jonas Valanciunas — the savior, just like in Game 2 against Indiana — made a hook shot, then a putback. Swingman Terrence Ross hit a midrange jumper off the dribble. All-Star DeMar DeRozan, dealing with a thumb injury, missed two free throws, but Valanciunas tipped the second one in. The slumping Kyle Lowry hit a jumper, and if that was the dagger, it could have been a nice redemption story.

For these Raptors, though, it’s never that simple.

Another Lowry jumper was sandwiched between 3-pointers from Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic. Off to overtime these two teams went, just like Game 1. The difference, this time, was that the Heat missed a bunch of floaters and turned the ball over again, while the Raptors scrounged up just enough offense to survive. Miami didn’t score for almost four minutes in the extra period.

Let’s go to Spoelstra again: “They just made a lot more plays than we did down the stretch. We made more plays than they did last game. It’s highly competitive going back and forth.”

Spoelstra keeps using the word “competitive,” and he is not wrong. This series is intense, and the Pacers series was, too. The Raptors can be proud of their defensive effort, but they barely resemble the team that was fifth in the league in offensive rating.

A reporter asked DeRozan and Lowry if they think they’re ever going to play a game that looks “normal.” Both of them laughed.

“It’s been ugly,” DeRozan said. “I mean, when we do, I’m pretty sure you’ll know.”

If we do,” Lowry interrupted.

“It’s a grind, man, honestly,” DeRozan continued. “We knew nothing was going to be pretty, nothing was going to come out pretty. As long as we can come out with a W, it really don’t matter how we’re playing.”

That is certainly one way to look at it. Sure, Toronto shot 41.9 percent and its two All-Stars combined to go 16 for 46, but a 30-point win in which they’d scored at will would have counted the same. If a less talented team won in this style, it might be called “gritty” or “resilient.” The Raptors have lost four games in the playoffs, and each time, they have won the next one.

“We gotta take it,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “We can harp on the negatives and beat that drum, beat it to death, but we’re finding other ways to win and that’s very encouraging.”

It is difficult to imagine, though, that the Raptors can continue to get away with following this script. In some ways, they won in spite of themselves, like that near-collapse in Game 7 against the Pacers. How good should they feel about a win where they went 4 for 18 from 3-point range and 14 for 26 from the free throw line? How scared should Miami be going back home with the series tied?

“I feel like if we don’t turn the ball over [21] times, we’ll be fine,” Wade said.

Casey acknowledged that Toronto is “not getting a lot of movement,” and that is playing into the Heat’s hands. Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll said that they’re competing hard, but they’re not executing like they need to. The human drama in this matchup is compelling, even if basketball purists want to turn away from the wreckage. Here is Toronto, desperately trying to find itself. And there is Miami, much more experienced, but just as easily goaded into inefficient shots.

Spoelstra said that, in the playoffs, sometimes you cannot play to your identity, as the other team will not let you. With the Raptors, though, it feels like they’re doing a lot of the damage to themselves. Getting out of the first round has not fixed that.

Kyle Lowry and the Raptors (barely) avoid going down 0-2.  (USATSI)
Kyle Lowry and the Raptors (barely) avoid going down 2-0. (USATSI)

Raptors even series vs. Heat, but they’re not going anywhere like this – CBSSports.com