Dwane Casey was anxious to measure the progress of his young and improving Toronto Raptors squad in an early season test against the back-to-back NBA champions and the best player in the league.
The Raptors stayed with the star-studded Miami Heat for three quarters, even holding a healthy lead at times, before the Heat took over. Ultimately, it was LeBron James leading the way with 35 points, while Dwyane Wade added 20 as Miami won its 12th consecutive meeting with the Raptors dating back to the 2010 season, 104-95.
The Heat were without one of the vaunted Big Three, former Raptors star Chris Bosh, who stayed in South Florida following the birth of his new daughter.
The Heat (3-2) have struggled with chemistry issues thus far this season. They didn't always execute like their typical fast-passing, sharp-shooting selves Tuesday, but they still wore down the Raptors (who were led by DeMar DeRozan with 21 points, Jonas Valanciunas 18, and Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry 13) in the late going.
There were encouraging moments for Toronto, flashes of the mantra Casey preaches: outhustle any opponent, no matter their level of talent. At one point, Gay picked up his own rebound off the backboard, drew a foul and drained a shot while falling to the floor. He then drove down on the next possession for a layup to tie the game 71-71.
The seven-foot Valanciunas had his best point total of the season, busting out for 10 early points before the Heat found ways to slow him. Tyler Hansbrough pulled in seven rebounds in 15 minutes 33 seconds off the bench and got physical with Miami's Chris Andersen under both baskets.
Raptors sophomore Terrence Ross had 11 points and went toe-to-toe with Michael Beasley, each going end to end and draining back-to-back three-point shots.
And Toronto, entering this game with the NBA's best rebounding average per game, edged the Heat on the boards 40-38.
"We put ourselves in position to beat the best team in the league, and now the next step for us to be able to bust through that and make those plays," said Casey, his team now 2-2 in a brutal first 30 days of the 2013-14 schedule. "We're not there yet. I see us getting better and improving, but we have to fight through this month."
As an assistant coach, Casey was the architect behind the Dallas Mavericks' 2-3 zone defence that confounded the Heat during the 2011 NBA final. But there are few tactics to control James these days, he said: "There's no defence he hasn't seen."
James, the man commonly anointed the best player in the game, also added eight boards and eight assists.
With his performance Tuesday, James joined Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Moses Malone as the only players to score double digits in 500 consecutive regular-season NBA games.
"I'm not chasing Michael; I'm chasing what I can potentially do," said the 28-year-old, who is starting his 11th NBA season. "At the end of the day, I can't rank myself in NBA history. That's for everyone else to do. I have the potential to be really good at this game, and I don't want to take any shortcuts or take anything for granted."
James showed savvy veteran experience: an unflinching drive into a defending Gay, which drew the Raptors forward into a blocking foul. He showed unheralded grunt work (which many stars don't undertake): lunging over the heads of front-row fans to rescue a ball in the first quarter. And certainly, he showed pizzazz: throwing down a thundering dunk in the first quarter, delivering assists with the ease of a blackjack dealer, and turning DeRozan in circles on the defensive end before stripping him of the ball and breezing down the court to bury on a fast-break layup.
Even after winning four NBA MVP awards and two championships, he remains obsessed with getting better.
"I know it sounds crazy when I say it, because it's the third straight year I've said it, and it's the third straight year I've gotten better," James said, pointing up to the locker-room ceiling. "I'm my biggest critic. I critique my game more than any coach or teammate or anybody.
"I know when I have room for improvement and I go after it. I don't know, but it's higher than this."
The Raptors face other NBA powerhouses in the coming weeks, like the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies before hosting the Heat again on Nov. 29. Casey sees a team on the brink of being able to break through in big games.
"They got into our guys and took us out of Plan A, so we've got to make the next pass to get it to Plan B," said Casey. "Making those big plays at the right time is huge, and that's what we have to do."