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Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse wasn't going to sugarcoat things. Last season may have been the low point of his Raptors tenure, but this season has certainly been the toughest. 

There was a sense coming into the year that everything was finally back to normal. The Raptors were back home at Scotiabank Arena playing in front of 19,000 raucous fans on a nightly basis. Sure, Pascal Siakam was going to take some time to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, but eventually, Toronto would be back to health with a chance to see what this team is all about.

Then came the Omicron variant, rising COVID-19 cases, an outbreak within the Raptors organization, and new restrictions on mass gatherings.

"It's been tough, man. I gotta say that. I think for the four seasons that I've been in as head coach, this one is has seemed to be the toughest," Nurse said as his squad reached the halfway mark of the season. "I don't know what it is but there's just been it seems a lot more lower valleys, I guess. ... There's some stark downs, man."

Through it all, Toronto has found a way to get by. Monday night's 104-99 loss to the Miami Heat showed that the Raptors are good, not great, but good. They've strung together impressive performances against the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, and Heat, skipping over the embarrassing loss to the Detroit Pistons. At 21-20, they've shown they can hang with anyone when healthy.

"I just feel like we know what type of team we are. If we play to our strength and bring that intensity a lot of team won’t want to play us," said Pascal Siakam who had another double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds on Monday. 

The defense has come a long way since its disappointing start to the season. Toronto forced 12 turnovers against Miami, including one on Jimmy Butler courtesy of Fred VanVleet to keep the Raptors alive late. Six straight stops in the final four minutes allowed Toronto to climb back into it late, but the offense couldn't quite pull even, and eventually, P.J. Tucker nailed a corner three-pointer to clinch it.

Even in the loss, Chris Boucher continued to show how far he's come from his disastrous start to the year. Against Miami, he was running the lane in transition, whizzing up and down the court, and picking up easy buckets in the fastbreak. When the game slowed down, he found cutting lanes inside, presenting himself near the basket to the tune of 23 points including 7-for-9 shooting from the free-throw line and 10 rebounds.

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“He is really a problem on the glass on both ends and he just battles so hard and keeps a lot of balls alive," Nurse said. "Defensively he has been pretty good too. All kinds of matchups which you probably wouldn’t expect. He’s been guarding a lot of guards and doing an incredible job."

The problem for Toronto was Tyler Herro, the man Miami wouldn't move for Kyle Lowry at last year's trade deadline. He came off the bench and caught fire, nailing mid-range jumpers as the Raptors ran him off the three-point line. His 23 points led all Heat scorers and allowed Miami to climb ahead in the second quarter.

Despite the steps Toronto has taken from last season, the Raptors could still use some help. Another floor-spacing scorer would go a long way this season, but this year is about testing out an experiment, it seems. Can Siakam Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes play together? Can you regularly play lineups without a single player over 6-foot-9? 

"We’re trying to evaluate who exactly we are," Nurse said pre-game. "It has been more difficult this year to figure it out."

Reading between the lines, don't wouldn't expect anything big to happen in the next month before the Feb. 10 trade deadline. Between the injuries and the COVID-19 issues, it's been impossible to get an accurate read on this experiment. Disrupting it, therefore, seems unlikely. But that's OK. Toronto is playing the long game this season and if the first half of the year is any indication of what's to come, the future is bright for the Raptors.

Achiuwa Stars in Return to Miami

Precious Achiuwa didn't light up the scoreboard by any means, but he grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds in his first game against his former team. 

Champagnie Dislocates Finger

Justin Champagnie played nine minutes as Toronto's seventh and final man off the bench Monday. He dislocated his finger, Nurse said, but he was cleared to return.

Lowry Sidelined

Lowry missed the game for personal reasons. His next opportunity to play the Raptors will come on Jan. 29 in Miami.

Birch Timetable

Khem Birch is expected to be back in 10 to 14 days following surgery on his broken nose this past weekend.

Up Next: Dallas Mavericks

Toronto's road trip will continue Wednesday night when the Raptors take on the Dallas Mavericks at 8:30 p.m. ET.