The Raptors, more than any other team, need to remind both their fan base and outside observers that they are actually as good as their record suggests. Years of disappointment in the playoffs have cast a shadow of doubt over the franchise, even when there's seemingly no reason to be skeptical. Toronto needs to constantly prove itself to everyone.
Fortunately for them, a 112-104 win against the streaking Heat in an overtime thriller should give them enough credibility for a while.
Some of the issues that affected the Raptors in the past in big games were there on Saturday. Kyle Lowry wasn't efficient and they were destroyed on the boards, which typically would have been a death sentence. Their depth disappeared, as no one coming off the bench really made a big, positive impact. Their opponent played small and had a big wing that DeMar DeRozan was in charge of defending. It was all too reminiscent of past losses.
This time, however, Toronto showed mental fortitude in the face of adversity, and both DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas played well enough to make up for off nights by other important players. The young center had 20 points to go with 10 rebounds and was solid on defense, something that isn't always a given for him. DeRozan, meanwhile, finished the game with 38 points in 26 shots, the type of efficient performance that was rare for him before this season.
The Heat have been thriving ever since they've started to play small and run, so it's not surprising that they pushed Toronto even without Dwyane Wade. Joe Johnson, who has been a revelation since joining them, had 28 points for the night and Goran Dragic, who didn't have his shot going, dished out nine assists. It was enough to send the game to the wire.
With the the Raptors up three, Luol Deng got a pass and hit a corner three-pointer to get the game to overtime. Miami was on the second game of a back-to-back, but it wouldn't have been shocking to see the Heat escape with the win since the momentum was on their side.
These Raptors, however, don't fold easily. After trading buckets to open overtime, the Raptors went on a 7-0 run during a two-minute stretch to seal the deal.
The win doesn't have a huge impact on the standings, as Miami was not likely to catch up to Toronto. It's unlikely the two squads meet in the postseason, if seeding remains like it is now. The only reason why the game was important is because it allowed the Raptors to prove to everyone that they are a different beast this season. Once again.
3 other thing we learned
The Mavericks are slumping at the wrong time
The Mavericks were one of the most pleasant surprises in the league earlier in the season. After internal strife derailed them in 2014/15 and DeAndre Jordan spurned them in free agency, they managed to cobble together a team of under-appreciated players and veteran rejects that got off to a great start. At one point they were six games over .500 and looked like a lock to make the postseason. Following a five-game losing streak, they now have as many losses as they have wins and the eighth best record in the West.
The players who excelled in the first stretch, like center Zaza Pachulia, are now struggling and the three-point guard lineups that used to hide the lack of depth at the wing are now being exploited on both ends. Chandler Parsons is playing well and Dirk Nowitzki continues to be a deadly first option on offense but that hasn't been enough. In Saturday's loss against the Pacers the defense was the problem, as they allowed 112 points, but something has been going wrong for Dallas in almost every game. If they can't turn their season around soon, their chances to make the playoffs could vanish.
The Hornets are peaking at the right time
The Hornets beat the Rockets, 125-109, and now have the league's longest winning streak with seven. Kemba Walker, who is having a breakout season, had 26 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Nicolas Batum had 25 and four other players finished in double digits for a team that is suddenly looking very deep.
It's easy to dismiss the Hornets' streak as hollow, since it includes wins against the Suns, Timberwolves, 76ers and Pelicans. The three other opponents they defeated, however, are all teams with more wins than losses, including direct rivals for seeding in the East like the Pacers and Pistons. Just like the Raptors, the Hornets truly look like a different team this year and could make some noise in the playoffs if they draw the right matchup.
The Warriors toy with opponents
We've seen it plenty of times this season, especially at Oracle Arena. Some team will keep things close for a while, then make a run at a point in the second half to get a lead on the Warriors. Sometimes it reaches double digits, sometimes it doesn't, but suddenly some of Golden State players start to look tired and we all talk ourselves into the possibility that this night, they won't be able to flip the switch and come back. Only they always do.
On Saturday, the Suns were the Warriors' playthings. They had a killer third quarter in which Brandon Knight dropped 17 points and carried a nine-point lead into the final period. Then that lead was reduced to two in less than a minute. A 14-0 run by the Warriors during a two-minute stretch late in the quarter spoiled the Suns' victory hopes, however.
It's as if the Warriors create their own adversity through apathy only so they can overcome it in the most triumphant way possible. It's thrilling to watch, but it must be terrible to live through it, like Phoenix had to.
Play of the night
Curry can feel when a shot is good. He doesn't have to look at it.
4 fun things
Hornets 125, Rockets 109 (At the Hive recap | The Dream Shake recap)