Toronto punishes smaller Heat in paint in deciding game, but now faces bigger challenge in Cleveland in conference final
POSTED: May 15, 2016 10:25 PM ET
Game 7: Raptors 116, Heat 89
Kyle Lowry leads Toronto to its first appearance in the East finals.
TORONTO — There were many moments of angst and times of doubt. This franchise has certainly been there before, leaving its rabid fan base heartbroken.
There was potential for panic and second-guessing. And, my goodness, would there be second-guessing if things didn't work out.
But Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey stuck with the plan and knew that if his team just played the way it was supposed to, things would go their way, the fans would go crazy, and they would all be going to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
He was right.
With their season on the line for the second time in 15 days, the Raptors played their best and most complete game of the postseason, beating the Miami Heat, 116-89, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and booking a trip to Cleveland for Game 1 of the conference finals on Tuesday.
There was no major adjustment to be made after Friday's loss in Game 6, when the Raptors didn't take advantage of what had become a huge size discrepancy in this series. Both teams lost their starting center in Game 3, but only one had a playable center, as well as a starting power forward with the body of an actual power forward, remaining.
In Miami on Friday though, Toronto didn't play like the bigger team, couldn't keep the Heat out of the paint and didn't punish them on the glass. And thus, they were flying back home for Game 7 instead of flying to Cleveland for Game 1.
On Sunday, the Heat again played super-small, leaving Udonis Haslem and Amar'e Stoudemire on the bench for all but one minute of Game 7. And again, the Raptors started big.
"You've got to make them pay if you're going to play, if we're going to stay big," Casey told his starting frontcourt. "And if you don't, we got to get you out."
Patterson and Biyombo responded and actually played bigger than Miami's frontline of small forwards. They crashed the offensive glass early and often, registering 13 of the Raptors' 20 offensive rebounds, which led to a season-high 27 second chance points. Biyombo dove to the rim aggressively in transition, knowing there was no one there with his combination of size and athleticism to stop him. His work and his energy resulted in a career-high 17 points.
"I thought tonight, we played big," Casey said. "If you're going to stay in the game, you got to plant your feet in the lane and do what you do. I thought Bismack and Patrick did that. They played big. In the game in Miami the other night, they didn't play big. [The Heat] stayed small and won that battle. But tonight, I thought our big guys made them pay."
"We wanted to make a statement," Patterson added, "as far as me and him setting the tone, offensive and defensively rebounding."
This is a make-or-miss league. The Raptors did shoot better in Game 7 than they had most of the series, making nine of their 20 3-point attempts. Kyle Lowry (35 points on 11-for-20 shooting), who seemingly had no confidence in his shot in Game 1, caught fire. And DeMar DeRozan (28 points on 12-for-29) hit some timely pull-up, mid-range jumpers.
But DeRozan was still largely inefficient and the Raptors' effective field goal percentage on Sunday (51.2 percent) was still barely above average. The difference in their wins vs. their losses in this series has been more about the glass and at the free throw line than it's been about makes or misses. And in addition to grabbing 20 offensive boards, the Raptors went to the line 43 times on Sunday, including 26 times in the 22 minutes that the Raptors' starting lineup was on the floor together.
As it often does, offense leads to defense and vice versa. When shots started to fall, when crashing the glass bore fruit, and when dives to the rim went rewarded, the Raptors became more engaged defensively. Biyombo switched out and did a much better job of containing the Heat's guards than he did on Friday. The Heat need paint points to win, and they didn't get enough in Game 7.
"They can play smaller, perimeter guys," Casey said of Patterson and Biyombo. "They got out on the perimeter, kept guys in front of them. And when the shot went up, they planted their feet, took a stand in the paint, and played like big men."
Engaged and active on both ends of the floor, the Raptors played like the 56-win, 2 seed that won its season series against every Eastern Conference opponent and has the depth to withstand an injury to its starting center.
"Today," Dwyane Wade said, "the better team won."
Next stop: Cleveland, where the Cavaliers will present the Raptors' with a MUCH tougher challenge, especially defensively, where simply keeping the opponent out of the paint is only half the battle. Against the LeBron James and the defending Eastern Conference champs, the Raptors' best might not be good enough.
But after two comfortable, Game 7 wins, they're going further than they ever have before, having erased any doubt about their ability to play their best when it matters most.
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