TORONTO – The Miami Heat may not be eliminated from the playoffs, but it sure isn’t looking good.
The Toronto Raptors, buoyed this week by the return of All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, jumped on the Heat early and held on for a 96-94 victory Friday at the Air Canada Center.
The loss drops the Heat (38-41) one game behind the Bulls and Pacers, who hold the final two playoff spots in the East. Each team has three games to play.
Miami, though, has the much more difficult schedule with two games against Washington, including Saturday’s final road game of the season, and one against Cleveland.
The Heat went scoreless for nearly four minutes in the second quarter as Toronto (49-31) opened an 18 point lead. Miami fought back to tie the score at 82 on a Hassan Whiteside dunk with 4:43 to play but Serge Ibaka made a three pointer on the Raptors next possession and Miami never was able to overtake the Raptors from there.
“We don’t care whatever the score is, if you’re up 10 or if you you’re down 20 we don’t stop battling,” Goran Dragic said. “This team has a lot of grit. Even when we are down big we still fight to end. We came back.”
The Heat got within 85-84 with 4:21 to play and the Raptors scored the next seven points to seal the game.
James Johnson led the Heat with 22 points, this after missing his first seven shots from the floor. Dragic added 18 points. The Heat, though, were just 8-of-23 on 3 pointers after making a franchise record 21 at Charlotte on Wednesday.
Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan led all scorers with 38. Lowry had 12 in his second game back after missing 21 games with a wrist injury.
Here are our five takeaways from the demoralizing loss:
Slow start tough to overcome: Miami has little room for error against the league’s elite teams and Friday it was hurt by a start that was as cold as the weather outside the Air Canada Center, which, with temperatures in the 30s, was unseasonable even for Toronto. Miami made just seven of its first 31 shots and missed all but one of its first seven 3-point attempts. Miami recovered, shooting 39.8 percent but finished just 34.8 percent on threes.
“You can’t expect necessarily to hit 21 threes again,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s a good defensive team. We figured this would probably have to be a game we win in the low 90s. We had some great looks in the first half. I actually liked a lot of the looks including the lay ups and missed threes. They just didn’t go down.”
Where’s Whiteside? In one of the biggest games of the season the Heat’s $98 million man was a non-factor for most of the night. Whiteside got into early foul trouble and for the second consecutive game took just one shot in the first half. But unlike the Charlotte game, in which Whiteside woke up and had a solid second half, Whiteside never really made a difference, and Spoelstra let him know about it. Spoelstra chewed out Whiteside big time during a time out early in the third quarter. Whiteside finished with a very hollow double-double – 12 points and 10 rebounds – while shooting 4-of-14. He then accused the Raptors and center Johan Valanciunas of flopping.
“My hat goes off to JV that guy’s a Grammy Award winning actor,” he said, mixing up his awards. “It’s amazing he just throws his head back and it’s a foul. We know they like to flop, the antics they do, we know that.”
DeRozan goes off, again: The first thing DeMar DeRozan will do when the 2017-18 schedule is released is circle the games against Miami. Toronto’s All-Star shooting guard had another big night against the Heat, scoring 38 points, making 14-of-32 shots . This after DeRozan lit up the Heat for 40 in Miami two weeks ago. DeRozan entered the night fifth in the league with 27.0 points per game.
“If you need a scouting report on how to defend him, don’t ask us,” Spoelstra said. “He’s just a big time shot maker. I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league that makes more contested shots over the top of a good defense than DeMar DeRozan.”
Playoffs hopes hanging by a thread: The loss drops the Heat one game behind the Bulls and Pacers, who hold the last two playoff spots in the East, with just three to play. Miami has the tie-breaker over the Pacers but not the Bulls. Miami, though, has a much more difficult remaining schedule than Chicago and Indiana with two games remaining against Washington – on the road Saturday and at home Wednesday – and a home game against Cleveland on Monday. The Heat likely have to win all three games to have a chance to make it to the postseason.
“This is the way we’ve been for the last 2 ½, three months,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been in our March Madness. We feel like every single game has the feeling of an elimination game for several weeks. Our guys are tough enough to handle this. We can handle whatever we need to handle.”
Back-to-back: Saturday marks the final back-to-back set – and road game – of the season for Miami when the Heat travel to Washington. The Heat will have played 15 back-to-backs this season. They are 6-8 in the second game so far. Miami is 17-23 on the road.
“You got to move on,” forward Rodney McGruder said. “Everyone left it on the line. They competed. It’s a great turnaround. Win or lose we have to put this game in the back of our minds and prepare for tomorrow.”