MIAMI – The Toronto Raptors haven't defeated the Miami Heat since January 27, 2010, less than five months before the Big Three joined forces in Miami.
That's 14 consecutive losses to the two-time defending champs, and most of them were over before they even began.
Result notwithstanding, Sunday's game had a very different feel to it. The Raptors believed they had a chance, they felt like they should win and to their credit, they nearly pulled it out. The mentality has changed and so too have the expectations, evident in the visitor's locker room after the team's 102-97 loss at AmericanAirlines Arena.
"I like the way our guys fought," coach Dwane Casey said after the loss, his team's first in six games. "But, again, you don't get a win or any medals or anything for losing."
"I like what our guys are building. I know where we are. I've said it, I haven't wavered from it. I like the direction we're going. We're building something [but when] you're playing against the best, you've got to do the little things and there can't be any slippage."
Riding a five-game winning streak, which included an impressive victory over the conference-best Pacers, the Raptors never looked out of place against the second-place Heat. They led by as many as nine in the third, up five going into the fourth quarter and had a chance to tie when Kyle Lowry missed a step-back triple with four seconds remaining.
The performance validated the legitimacy of their recent success and proved they can compete with the league's best. That may be a revelation to those who are just tuning in but it comes as no surprise internally, as Lowry firmly pointed out.
"We played the Pacers a couple games ago and played them tough, we played the top two teams tough, there's no moral victories at all," said the Raptors' point guard, who had 14 points and nine assists in the loss. "We just know we can play with anybody, we've been saying that for a long time. We could play with anybody."
"It says a lot," added DeMar DeRozan after scoring a game-high 26. "It says no matter who we play we're going to go out there and play hard. People are going to have to worry about us when we come in their building or they come in our building. We're not no scrub team."
DeRozan - who was spectacular in the first half, shooting 8-of-10 - made just two of his eight fourth-quarter attempts, forcing tough jumpers. As a team, the Raptors shot 29 per cent in the final frame and went an uncharacteristically terrible 12-of-21 from the line on the night. LeBron James, who was guarded primarily by sophomore Terrence Ross, went off for 30 points on just 18 shots. They gave up 14 offensive boards - including three on one possession - to the worst offensive rebounding team in the league.
A month ago Casey may have focused on the positives, the fact that his team hung in with the champs. It's a process, he would say. Now he expects more, a true indication of their evolution and how far they've come since they dropped a pair of games to the Heat at home in November.
"You shoot 57 per cent from the free throw line, you're not going to beat too many people, I don't care if it's [the] Miami Heat or Miami-Dade High School," he said.
"The 30th offensive rebounding team in the league and they get 14. That's not acceptable for us. Our interior people have to do a better job of finding bodies."
He was especially critical of 21-year-old Jonas Valanciunas, who held his own in the second half after getting off to a slow start against a smaller Heat lineup.
"Second half he played much better [but] first half he didn't do anything," Casey said. "A lot of those offensive rebounds were coming over his back. He's got to dominate, especially against a smaller centre to be effective, to stay in the game."
Still, Valanciunas was on the floor down the stretch, along with Ross and the rest of the Raptors' starters. Casey comfortably stood his ground, forcing Miami to match-up with him rather than the other way around.
Finally, the Raptors are well on their way to developing and, most importantly, maintaining an identity. "We've all noticed," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Toronto's improvement before the game.
There's no such thing as a "moral victory" in the NBA. In fact, Casey and company couldn't bear to hear the term after the loss but if Sunday's game was a litmus test, as Toronto's coach suggested pre-game, than the Raptors came out in pretty good shape.
"We're a different team than when we played them before," Casey said ahead of Sunday's meeting. "But still, we have to have a healthy amount of respect for the Miami Heat."
"We're not thinking that we're at the level of the team [we played] tonight, we're not there yet, but that is our goal. We're striving to be like the Heat."