Toronto Raptors Still Have Much to Prove After Averting Disaster in Game 2

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2016

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 18:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors talks to teammate DeMar DeRozan #10 in the second half of Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 18, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It was another dreadful game for the Toronto Raptors' All-Star backcourt, but the supporting cast kept the contest from being an outright catastrophe.

Despite failing to protect several late-game leads—namely being up four with 45.9 seconds left in the fourth, then up three with 14.9 remaining—the Raptors did just enough to eke out a 96-92 overtime win over the Miami Heat.

The ongoing struggles of guards Kyle Lowry (18 points on 7-of-22 shooting) and DeMar DeRozan (20 on 9-of-24) make it easy to wonder if the playoff lights are simply too bright for this Toronto team. But even though the Raptors squandered home-court advantage, they avoided what could have been a debilitating 0-2 series hole and kept their postseason pulse pumping.

"[Tonight was] definitely a must-win," Lowry told ESPN's Heather Cox afterward. "Even though we didn't protect home court, it's 1-1. It's an even series, 0-0 in my mind. They gotta beat us three times, we gotta beat them three times."

Can the Raptors win three of the next five without getting their guards back on track? It's tough to even imagine that happening. They collectively carry so much of the offensive load, and their putrid playoff shooting percentages (33.7 for DeRozan, 30.8 for Lowry) have almost torpedoed what was the NBA regular season's fifth-rated offense.

But, with one victory in hand, Toronto has realized it can outlast Miami's seventh-rated defense on a far-less-than-perfect night. And the Raptors should figure out they have more offensive weapons than their struggling top guns.

The Raptors just witnessed the best playoff game yet from offseason import DeMarre Carroll, who tallied 21 points, five rebounds and four steals in just under 40 minutes.

"He was the savior tonight offensively," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg.

Toronto is also discovering—or should be, at leastthat Jonas Valanciunas' interior offense is the perfect counter to the Heat's shot-blocking center, Hassan Whiteside.

"He's definitely the reason we won this game," DeRozan said of Valanciunas, per Raptors Republic's Blake Murphy.

It took a blue-collar effort and a game-high six offensive rebounds for the Lithuanian to put his imprint on the proceedings. He's been nearly unguardable to start this series (19.5 points per game on 68.0 percent shooting), which makes his level of involvement—or rather, lack thereof—incredibly confounding.

While Lowry and DeRozan were launching and missing countless jump shots, Toronto's 7-footer offered an offensive outlet that far too often went overlooked. Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press was one of many wondering aloud on Twitter why Valanciunas wasn't more involved:

Whiteside's defensive presence clearly affected the Raptors' penetration game. Toronto's guards either forced shots or simply didn't look to score at all when the athletic center manned the middle.

But Valanciunas neutralized that impact when given the chance. He also reminded the hoops world that while Whiteside can be a defensive menace underneath, he's not a very effective defender against post-up plays. During the regular season, he allowed 0.99 points per possession on those looks, a bottom-fourth mark for all defenders.

The Raptors know they'll need more from Lowry and DeRozan to advance in this round and perhaps move any further. After a prolonged shooting session following Game 1 and a quick start in Game 2 (hitting three of his first five shots), Lowry promises his confidence is there, even if the results haven't been.

"It's there," he told Cox. "I just wanted to come out here and be myself. I know I didn't make as many shots, but I took the shots I normally take. Next game, they're for sure gonna fall."

That's an encouraging quote from someone less than 48 hours removed from admitting his prolonged shooting slump was "mind-boggling" and "frustrating," per CBS Sports' James Herbert. But Toronto obviously needs something more tangible than confidence to help steal a game on the road against a well-seasoned Miami squad.

Just as the Heat have relied on pieces other than Dwyane Wade—Goran Dragic has paced Miami in points through each of the first two games—so too must the Raptors exploit every potential advantage available to them.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 03:  Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Toronto Raptors drives to the basket as Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat defends in the second half of Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada C
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Valanciunas, a former top-five pick who inked a $64 million extension last summer, shouldn't be starved for touches. Even Casey admitted as much in his postgame comments, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg:

The more involved Toronto's supporting cast can be, the less defensive attention Miami can pay to DeRozan and Lowry. And that could be the key to getting this entire run back on track.

When the Raptors freed their guards, the All-Stars delivered, both converting five of their nine uncontested looks (55.6 percent). But that means they also forced up 28 combined contested shots and misfired on all but six (21.4 percent).

Toronto must add different dimensions to its attack. That's not only about getting more guys involved; it's also having more activity: crisper passes, sharper cuts, things that force the Heat's defense into second and third rotations.

The Raptors averaged 305.4 passes and 18.7 assists per game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those numbers are down to 288.1 and 16.2, respectively. Their offense is becoming too predictable, an issue exacerbated by the ongoing struggles of Lowry and DeRozan.

"We're not getting a lot of movement in our offense and that's part of the problem," Casey said, per Lewenberg.

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 20:  Kyle Lowry #7 and Head Coach Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors shout to official Scott Wall #31 after Lowry was ejected from the game in the third quarter during an NBA game against the Sacramento Kings at the Air Canada Centr
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Two games into this second-round series, the Raptors have seen some of their biggest flaws come to light at the worst possible time. But that's perhaps an unlikely source of comfort for a club that made the most of a tough situation Thursday night.

Toronto knows it has played far from its best to start this series. The offense has mostly sputtered along, the defense has shown its share of cracks, and the stars have largely failed to shine.

And yet, the Raptors remain alive and well. Sure, holding serve on the home floor would have been the preferred outcome, but grinding out a had-to-have-it Game 2 victory could give some momentum to a club in desperate need of exactly that.

"We can harp on the negatives and beat that drum, beat it to death," Casey said, per CBS Sports' James Herbert, "but we're finding other ways to win and that's very encouraging."

  

Unless otherwise cited, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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