The Toronto Raptors became post-moral victory years ago. They’ve now entered the stage of their growth as a group where they’re post-all wins are good, the greater emphasis on how the team will look in April and May making even a 13-point home victory in November a potential rallying cry for a message that’s just not getting through.
Opposite a Charlotte Hornets opponent without star point guard Kemba Walker, the Raptors started and closed strong but sleptwalk through another third quarter. That they’d end up winning 126-113 was of little concern to head coach Dwane Casey after the game, when he requested the Open Gym cameras be turned off so that the team could be reminded, without filter, that not all wins are good wins. Not in Year Five of being a playoff team, and not in a season where the how is being preached as more important than the how many.
The Raptors came out with an apparent edict to get their two slumping starters going, with Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan combining to take 12 shots in the first five minutes. Valanciunas’ energy level was in the right place, rendering Dwight Howard mostly a screen-setter and, oddly, a jump-shooter early, but Valanciunas’ own stroke was wayward. He missed a free-throw jumper on the short roll he’s normally good for and struggled inside, though he and Serge Ibaka were still a plus for their activity on the glass. DeRozan, meanwhile, decidedly shook off his three-game mini-slump, scoring on a terrific cut, unleashing a euro-step floater, shaking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with a turnaround elbow jumper, and finishing with 10 points in the opening quarter.
The Raptors did a nice job on the Hornets at the other end, owing in part to Michael Carter-Williams’ ineffectiveness as a lead guard. OG Anunoby saw time on Kidd-Gilchrist, Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, and Marvin Williams, and the starters as a whole did a nice job of sealing off the paint. (Let’s just not talk about Anunoby’s spin move into a waiting Howard.) Howard did beat Valanciunas for a dunk on a nice post-up, with Valanciunas getting him right back and more with a tidy up-and-under, stopped him on a mid-range face-up, then scored on him in the post once again.
A driving Ibaka dunk straight out of his Thunder days sent the Hornets running for a timeout down 10 early, before the Raptors had even gone to the bench. If that’s not a positive sign for this team, one doesn’t exist. Casey smartly tethered Valanciunas to Howard and went to Jakob Poeltl as the Hornets went to their bench, and a DeRozan-lead bench group drew another timeout out of Steve Clifford. The Hornets finally had some shots dropped and closed the gap to 32-25 at the end of the quarter.
Frank Kaminsky happened for a while in the second quarter, because it’s Kaminsky and it’s the Raptors. He scored eight in a hurry at the top of the second despite decent defensive effort from the home side, and Malik Monk joined him from beyond the arc. The Raptors’ second unit was firing back with the drive-and-kick game, led by Norman Powell and C.J. Miles, each of whom had a three and a great take to the rim. Valanciunas returned opposite Howard and quickly scored on a nice cut, and then Lowry took a turn taking over for a stretch, finishing the half with 19 points, three rebounds, and four assists.
Valanciunas picked up a third foul with a little over three minutes to go, leading to some time with Poeltl on Howard, and Howard went right to work driving past him and dunking on a helping Ibaka. Poeltl picked up a third foul himself right after, which meant Lucas Nogueira minutes. Nogueira missed a rim-run in transition but picked up a deflection and saved a loose ball shortly after, and Anunoby got a turn guarding Howard in the post on a switch and helped force a turnover on a kick-out. The Raptors’ offense remained just too much for the Hornets in the penalty, and they pulled away heading into the break, stretching their lead to 19.
The third quarter was a Raptors third quarter, with the Hornets opening on an 8-0 run. Howard faced up for another long two and tipped in an offensive rebound, and Toronto helped their cause with some disorganized offense. Casey didn’t give it time to build, calling a timeout less than two minutes in only for the team to commit an over-and-back violation right after. Valanciunas earned the hook after a fourth foul, and after Lowry took a hard shot to the head, Carter-Williams played his best two minutes on offense since his rookie year. Poeltl promptly picked up his fourth, too, and the Hornets run had extended to 19-2, the Hornets scoring on nine consecutive possessions and the lead dwindling to just two.
“I don’t have words,” Casey said. “We’re not going to win anything if we come out with that attitude, if we don’t fix it. Again, we’ve talked about, I don’t know, start another five to start the second half? It’s just mind-boggling. And on top of that, we give them 38 free throws. We’re playing defence, fouling, reacting, not be proactive defensively.”
The poor start to the half eventually dissipated. DeRozan ended the drought with a pair of buckets and Carter-Williams came down to earth, allowing the Raptors to stabilize things momentarily. Charlotte punched right back with another 6-0 mini-run that took a wild Miles floater to stop and Fred VanVleet’s steadiness to keep at bay, and the back-and-forth through the end of the quarter had Toronto up just eight entering the fourth.
The all-bench group got the nod again at the top of the fourth, and Nogueira and Powell threes sent Charlotte to a timeout within the first two minutes this time around. The Lowry-and-bench group that hasn’t been used much this year held the lead steady for a few minutes, with Lowry’s hot scoring night carrying the load and some nice activity from the reserves keeping Charlotte at bay.
Casey opted to go starter-heavy to close, with Powell the only bench piece. Valanciunas even re-entered for Nogueira, who had three fouls and suffered a strained right calf to close a solid night, the Raptors wanting a big body for Howard and a strong screen-setter for their guards. That was tenuous, with Lamb and Batum both connecting around misses for the Raptors frontcourt, setting up a five-point game with just under five minutes to play. VanVleet re-entered for additional ball-handling and security at the cost of a size mismatch at both guard spots, and whether that worked or the tides turned naturally, the Raptors finally pulled back away.
A Lowry pull-up three against Kaminsky putting the game back to double-digits, and not even Howard pushing to 20-and-10 territory was enough to mount yet another comeback. DeRozan and Lowry closed out the scoring to finish with a combined 66 points on 40 field-goal attempts and 12 assists, and the clean close-out kept all five starters in the positive for plus-minus for a second game in a row (and plus-1 as a fivesome). Lowry set a career-high with eight made threes, too, and VanVleet set a career-best with nine assists.
“Yeah, you just trying to find him,” VanVleet said. “I think I had one I could have shot and I saw him, I gave it up right away. 8 for 11 from three is pretty impressive and when he’s got it going like that, it’s pretty hard to guard.”
Still, the mood was somewhat tense after the game, with Casey’s disappointment in the third quarter hanging over things. This stretch for the Raptors, where they’ll play a home-heavy schedule with ample time off and 10 of 11 opponents under .500, will have a heavy focus on winning the right way. Winning games isn’t necessarily a big enough positive on its own if the wins are coming in a way that will prove unsustainable when the leverage is much higher and the Raptors are actually being measured, and so fits of lethargy and a 116 defensive rating, even in an eventual 13-point win, will stand out.
“We’re happy we won the game but not happy with the performance,” Casey said. “We’ve got to fix it. We talked about it, other than start five other people I don’t know what to do.”
Lowry and DeRozan have often been good enough for poor stretches and mental lapses to not matter, and the bench being as terrific as it has been has helped paper over some larger issues. That buys the team some rope to figure things out without too much concern for their record, it could just make for more nights like this where the team isn’t thrilled about what looks like a fine win in the box score.