TORONTO - If Tuesday's date with the two-time defending NBA champions was in fact an early-season litmus test, the results were mostly inconclusive.
In the eight months that have elapsed since Miami's last visit to the Air Canada Centre the Heat have been busy. They flirted with NBA history, winning 27 straight games. They clawed their way past worthy postseason adversaries. They went on to claim their second title in as many years and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all added to their growing collection of rings. Even as they tinker and bide their time early in a season where they hope to three-peat, we know who they are.
The Raptors are a different story, the opposite end of the spectrum. Very little has changed for them since mid-March - the last meeting between the two teams - yet their identity and future is clouded with more questions than answers.
"We put ourselves in a position to beat the best team in the league," Coach Dwane Casey said after his team's fourth-quarter collapse did them in, falling 104-95 to the Heat. "Now the next step for our team is to be able to bust through that."
"Are we there yet?" he asked rhetorically. "We're not there yet. But I see us getting better and improving. We're getting there."
It's too early to tell where they are or who they are as a team, now 2-2 on the young season. They've stolen a pair of ugly wins - akin to the gritty, defensive-oriented team they aspire to become - and they've suffered a couple of disappointing losses, looking eerily similar to the Jekyll and Hyde version of the club that fooled observers a year ago.
They were not expected to beat the Heat on Tuesday but they themselves expected to show progression and to learn something about where they are as a team, four games into a long season. Their hot start - getting off to a 17-8 lead on the champs - and their resiliency, clawing back after Miami appeared to have taken control, were positives to be taken out of their first real test of the campaign. But these are qualities they've flashed before, even facing a challenge of this magnitude.
The Raptors have now lost 12 straight meetings with the Heat, including all 11 since the Big Three joined forces in 2010. However, their two meetings with Miami at home last season followed a similar storyline. In both games, both towards the end of the season, the Raptors played competitive basketball for three quarters, hanging in with the champs until the final frame. Combined, the Heat outscored Toronto 147-140 in the first three quarters of both games. They obliterated them in the fourth to the tune of a 61-36 advantage.
Toronto ceded momentum to their more accomplished rivals at the end of each quarter and in familiar fashion they fell apart when Miami opened the final period on a 12-0 run. Nine turnovers and 38 per cent shooting did them in during the quarter, the final nail in the coffin they buried themselves in. The Raptors believed they could compete in this game, whereas the Heat never had a doubt. They were poised and they were dominant when they needed to be. Like the season itself, they were just biding their time.
"I thought we put ourselves back in a position to win," Casey said. "In those situations you have to be able to execute. But you're not talking about chopped liver, [the Heat] had something to do with that. They did a good job of getting into our guys [and] taking us out of plan A."
"It just showed us where we're at and how much we have to work on," said Rudy Gay, who finished with his second straight double-double - 13 points and 10 rebounds - despite another poor shooting night.
"We're still a good team," he continued. "We lost to a good team. We lost to the two-time defending champs but I still think we can grow. We played them pretty solid through three quarters, we've just got to learn how to finish games out."
Searching for answers to stop James and the Heat's quicker lineup, Casey cycled through his rotation in the fourth and landed on a variation of the small lineup he's used to close games this season. Instead of Amir Johnson, who was mysteriously absent from the floor in the final quarter, Casey used Jonas Valanciunas at the five and alternated between Gay and Landry Fields to counter James at the four.
Johnson played the entire third quarter, going to the bench when the Raptors' trailed 78-74, but never returned. Casey confirmed that Johnson was fully healthy and said he wanted to stick with Tyler Hansbrough, who started the fourth, and go back to Valanciunas, who checked in for Hanbrough with 3:58 remaining.
"They were small also," Casey pointed out after the game. "I don't think the small lineup had anything [to do with the loss]."
"I thought Tyler was doing a good job [and] Jonas was doing a good job. They stayed with LeBron at the four so we stayed with Landry at the four."
Valanciunas played 27 minutes after logging fewer than 18 in each of the last two games, with Johnson anchoring the small unit down the stretch. The sophomore centre got off to a quick start, scoring 10 of his 18 points in the opening quarter as the Raptors took advantage of their superior size with Bosh out of Miami's lineup (he missed the game following the birth of his daughter).
Did the Raptors squander their biggest advantage when they matched up with the smaller Heat? Did they wait too long to bring their starters back in? Would it have made a difference? Would Johnson have made a difference? These are all fair questions.
The best there is
As the Heat eased their way in to the game, playing without a third of their all-star trio, James was superb from start to finish. The four-time MVP scored 35 on 13-of-20 shooting, adding eight rebounds and eight assists in his 500th straight game with 10 or more points (becoming the fifth player in NBA history to accomplish that feat).
Primarily using Gay and Fields to check James, the Raptors had no answer for the league's best player as he dominated in every facet of the game on Tuesday. Although Gay has matched up well with him in the past - as well as anyone can match-up with him - James had him beat in every way this go around.
"It's LeBron James. He's good. He had a good game," Gay said, frustrated with the question regarding their matchup but mostly frustrated in general after shooting 3-of-10 and committing four turnovers.
Quest for three
It's hard to believe after Tuesday's comeback victory that resembled so many they've pulled off in the recent past, but the Heat are still evolving. Even after back-to-back titles and three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, the Heat - like the Raptors, or any other team - are in the process of getting their footing in the new season. "They're trying to find themselves [and] we're trying to find ourselves," Lowry pointed out after practice on Monday.
Miami almost certainly has a head start given the Big Three's experience together and the success they've had since coming together in 2010. However, this is a new year and another, potentially more challenging test for the defending champs as they pursue the illustrious three-peat.
"We don't use the word defence," veteran Shane Battier said when asked about defending their title. "We're trying to win one. That's all we're trying do, just like last year we were just trying to win one in a row."
They retooled in the offseason, bringing back Chris Anderson for his first full season with the team and signing low risk, high upside players in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley but playing in an improved Eastern Conference, they'll have their work cut out for them. The target on their back has never been bigger.
"What we have to do this year is the same thing we last year, we have to reinvent ourselves," Battier said. "We can't assume that what worked last year is going to work this year. That's the fun part of the journey."
Since falling to Casey - then an assistant in Dallas - and the Mavs in the 2011 Finals, the Heat have had to evolve each season as the competition zeroes in, trying to figure them out.
"That was a long, long time ago but certainly we remember the zone [defence]," Coach Spoelstra said, looking back at the loss and his first season coaching the Big Three in Miami. "We've had to work on that extensively in the years past to the extent now that we feel comfortable with it."
"That was a very painful experience for us," the Heat's coach admitted. "Sometimes the ultimate pain makes you have to change and adapt. That was only the first of many things we had to work on."