Raptors coach Dwane Casey said before the game Friday that “you definitely don’t want to see Miami in the first round.”
The chances of any team seeing the Heat in the first round took a big hit Friday, as the Raptors unleashed a huge first-half run and then survived a second-half Heat comeback to win 96-94 at Air Canada Centre.
Down by 18 in the first half, the Heat rallied to tie it at 82 with 4:43 left.
But Toronto, fueled by DeMar DeRozan’s 38 points, then went on a 10-2 spurt. Tyler Johnson’s three-pointer with one second left accounted for the razor-close final margin.
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The Heat’s playoff hopes aren’t on life support, but Miami is clearly an underdog to make it at this point.
The Heat (38-41) fell one game behind No. 7 Chicago and No. 8 Indiana and two games behind No. 6 Milwaukee, with the Heat holding the tiebreaker against the Pacers and Bucks but not the Bulls.
And here’s the other problem: Whereas the Heat closes against three playoff teams (at Washington on Saturday, then home to Cleveland and Washington), the Bulls play three non-playoff teams (at Nets, home to Magic and Nets) and the Pacers also have an easier slate than Miami, with games at the Magic, at Philadelphia and then home against Atlanta.
“It’s still not over,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “Why not?... This team has a lot of grit.”
It was a frustrating night for Hassan Whiteside, who left with his second foul just 3:17 into the first quarter (committed on the perimeter), returned to start the second quarter, then left again with his third foul less than five minutes later.
He went to halftime scoreless for the second game in a row and finished with 12 points (4 for 14 shooting) and 10 boards, with two turnovers and no blocks.
Whiteside, who closed the night with five fouls, took a verbal shot at Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas afterward.
“Hats go off to JV; he’s a Grammy-award winning actor,” Whiteside said, meaning Oscar-award winning. “He throws his head back and it’s a foul. We know they like to flop and the antics they do. It’s tough when the same guy is calling every foul on you. You talk to him. He's still calling every foul on you.”
Referee Mark Lindsay called three of the five fouls on Whiteside.
Spoelstra also expressed mild disappointment about the foul calls on Whiteside, saying “These games, everything should be decided by the players right now. Those [fouls] felt inconsequential. He was great. Such a shame those quick fouls.
“I thought he could have handled it better in the first half but it was a shame. We were all disappointed he was out of the game four minutes into it. Those could be big decisions right there. It was tough for him to get into a rhythm. In the second half, we couldn’t be more proud of the effort.”
James Johnson, who shot 10 for 12 on Wednesday, opened 0 for 7 on Friday but played well the rest of the way, finishing with 22 points and making 8 of his final 10 shots to finish 8 for 17 from the field, with 10 rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks.
Dragic, shooting 6 for 14, scored 18 but had four of Miami’s 19 turnovers and just one assist.
Josh Richardson added 10 but shot just 4 for 12. And Tyler Johnson shot 2 for 7.
Considering all of that, and considering Miami shot just 39.8 percent from the field and 69 percent on free throws (20 for 29), it was somewhat remarkable that the final margin was only two against the playoff-bound Raptors (49-31).
The Heat had several empty possessions in the closing minutes.
After a Whiteside dunk off a pass from Richardson tied it at 82, Serge Ibaka’s three put Toronto ahead for good with 4:21 left.
Richardson missed a turnaround, Wayne Ellington missed a three that would have put Miami ahead with 3:19 left and Whiteside missed two hook shots during that 10-2 Toronto run.
James Johnson and Josh Richardson had turnovers on bad passes in the closing minutes, and Dragic lost the ball with the Heat down six and 21 seconds left.
“We had opportunities,” Spoelstra said. “We felt like momentum shifted. We couldn’t get over that hump.”
The Heat surged to an early 10-3 lead, but DeRozan — who scored 25 in the first half — then spearheaded a 39-14 stampede that left the Heat down 18.
By that point, Miami was shooting 7 for 31 and had more turnovers (eight) than baskets.
The Heat shot 3 for 15 on threes in the first half and 8 for 23 in the game.
“You can’t expect to hit 21 threes again,” Spoelstra said, one game after Miami set a franchise mark with 21 threes. “We had some great looks in the first half.”
Ultimately, Miami couldn’t stop DeRozan, who scored 16 in the first quarter and nine in the fourth. He closed 14 of 32 from the field and 10 of 11 from the line.
“If you need a scouting report on how to defend [DeRozan], don’t ask us,” Spoelstra said. “The crazy thing is, in some of these games, I thought we defended him well.”
And so Miami goes to Washington on Saturday, on a quick turnaround, desperately needing wins and help. The Heat could not be eliminated on Saturday but could not catch the Bulls if Miami loses to the Wizards and Chicago wins at the Nets. Miami could still catch Indiana regardless of Saturday’s results.
“Let’s go,” Spoelstra said. “This is what these guys want. This is the way we’ve been for the last two-and-a-half, three months. We’ve been in our March Madness. We feel like every single game has had the feeling of an elimination game for several straight weeks. Our guys are tough enough to handle this.”