Raptors' battle with Heat shows value of sustaining culture through turmoil

Vivek Jacob

TORONTO — There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but the evidence seems to suggest that the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors have the same school of thought.

Over the course of their meeting Tuesday night, Miami would create some separation on the scoreboard with terrific attention to detail on the defensive end and forceful execution on the offensive end. Each time, Toronto would will its way back through sheer desire and competitive spirit despite shooting under 40 percent for the game.

See, winning is a habit, and once you get a taste, it’s hard to shake the itch for it. Both these franchises have prided themselves on building a foundation of work ethic, battling to the very end, and settling for nothing less than seeking their best selves night in and night out. It is a foundation that takes joy in its marriage to the process, unwavering through better or worse.

“You’ve seen this program being built for several years now,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before going on an extended soliloquy of what has made the Raptors successful. “They have an identity, they have a culture, they have something that they believe in and playing hard and competing every single night is one of those deals, and you have to respect that. Last year, that was hard-earned, and that became a big time habit for them to be able to compete all the way through.

“When they lose some players this year after a championship, to continue to have that. Identity is not something that happens overnight, that’s not something you turn on and off like a faucet, that’s something that’s been developed within their culture for months and years. You’re seeing it now, they’re playing at a high level, particularly defensively... they are a get-down-and-dirty defensive team that you have to execute against.”

Not knowing which team he was referencing, those words could just as easily be applied to the Heat in the time since they were forced to confront the reality of a LeBron James departure after four straight trips to the NBA Finals. Add Chris Bosh’s unfortunate health issues and Dwyane Wade’s temporary absence before retirement and they had every reason to tank but didn’t. They’ve won 37, 48, 41, 44 and 39 games since, making the playoffs twice. Talent may come and go, but effort and intensity is non-negotiable. They have worked to develop their prospects like Duncan Robinson — who finished with 22 points — have drafted intelligently when they’ve had the opportunity (three total picks between 2015 and 2018) and have pushed themselves to be more consistent.

They sold themselves on trying, trying, trying again, and found a buyer in one of the biggest triers of them all. Jimmy Butler epitomizes everything the Heat stand for. A no-nonsense, competitive as f*** athlete who refuses to sell himself short. He was magnificent on this night with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, managing the ebbs and flows of the game to near perfection. He would have momentarily liked that last shot to win the game in regulation back, but scoring the first seven points of the overtime frame to settle matters early rather than leave it to the end again more than made up for it.

“Jimmy was pretty darn good,” Spoelstra said after the game. “He didn’t have a tonne of energy — at that point had already played 40 minutes, but it was like, alright, I’m just gonna make sure we seal this and this doesn’t get to a second overtime, or even worse, a loss.”

Dec 3, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN;  Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) drives to the basket as Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) defends in the first half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Butler showed the difference between him and Siakam right now. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto knew that feeling last year: keep it close enough and let Kawhi Leonard take you home. It’s an ability that the most special players in this league have and something the new incumbent, Pascal Siakam, continues to take steps toward on a nightly basis. Progress isn’t linear, though, and the Heat gave him what should be another opportunity to grow, just like his struggles against the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic earlier this season. The Cameroonian scored 15 points on 14 shot attempts, shying away from the spotlight as Bam Adebayo imposed his will. Miami’s man in the middle can move like a gazelle, and that, combined with his strength and size, proved to be a tough matchup for Siakam to deal with.

“I thought he was physical with him, I thought he moved his feet and kept him in front,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “Pascal couldn’t get around him, couldn’t get over the top of him very well either.

“And, I thought, as well, as a team defence, there were a few times when I looked down there and Pascal was in the paint and had four guys on him. He made a couple of good reads, kick out to Marc [Gasol] here and there and he made a few shots but they sent a lot of attention to him. But it started with Bam.”

It has happened four times in Toronto’s first 20 games and there will assuredly be more of them over the final 62 or however many games Siakam plays. The reason he continues to take one leap after the next is because of his commitment to the process, continuously chasing a better version of himself regardless of results.

“I think I've got to understand I've got to be in attack mode all the time, that's who I am,” Siakam said after the game. “And being one of the leaders of the team, I have to expect to go out like that, 100 percent of the time, every single game, so, depends... there's going to be games where, you know, but at the end of the day I've gotta do a better job of that, making sure that I'm always aggressive and that once we get to overtime and things like that I'm in a rhythm and not just feeling like I just started the game.”

Look at the names on the Heat roster after Butler and they are unassuming enough, so perhaps they don’t get the credit or respect they deserve. But for years Miami has prided itself on what it does on that hardwood, and at 15-5, has the same record as the defending champion Raptors, which is good for third-best in the league. In the other guys, they have players who exude all the habits of a champion, no one who turns the faucet on and off at their discretion, and when winning time comes, their Butler can do it.

The slight separator on this night was that the Raptors didn’t have the guy and the Heat did, but Siakam’s adoption of all the habits winners get addicted to shows that’s yet another aspect these two teams might have in common before they meet again.

More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports