After a couple of tepid losses against 8th seed playoff contenders, the Raptors finally managed to pull one out last night in Charlotte – and by “pull one out,” I mean “win comfortably,” which was certainly nice for a breather, if somewhat bland. As had been the subject of the majority of pregame hyperbole, the Raptors hadn’t won in Charlotte in five years, which makes this seemingly meaningless late-season win a bit more than a footnote in the season. Yes, the Raptors were banged up, and so were the Hornets, but there are plenty of positives to take from last night’s win as the team prepares for its playoff push.
It’s always interesting watching the Raptors play Charlotte, who work with a very defined style regardless of personnel. Charlotte’s top-10 defence is largely predicated on coaxing their opponents into mid-range jumpers, and, conversely, their poor offence is stuffed with mid-rangers of their own. The Raptors were able to take an early lead despite this style, not due to any smart gameplanning – both teams missed shots, and the Raptors simply made a few more.
In the second quarter, though, we saw the good guys push to what ended up being an insurmountable lead by forcing Charlotte to take bad shots, rather than hoping they missed good ones. You can chalk this change up largely to a bench unit that featured Chuck Hayes, Tyler Hansbrough, and James Johnson, who out lunchpail-ed the lunchpail Hornets through smart spacing and simply allowing opponents who want to take low-percentage shots (hi, Kemba!) to take them. Raptor wings like Terrence Ross and Greivis Vasquez often overcommit on shooters, giving them no choice but to step around and take the easy drive to the hoop. Tonight, a group of crafty veterans managed to mitigate that to the point where every single basket for the Hornets felt earned. It was a refreshing thing to see, even against a team missing a bunch of key players.
There are two guys in particular whose performance I think deserves to be singled out. The first is Hayes, who proved the value of having a post player whose value is completely reliant on positioning on both ends of the floor. By simply clogging the lane and not overcommitting on switches, Hayes was able to contest a lot of Hornets 2-point attempts and divert potential drives. Standing in the lane can have a huge impact against a team just dying for a reason to take the pull up jumper, even if it’s totally personnel driven.
Hayes made his bones offensively, too, by standing at the top of the key and working as what was essentially a glorified passing pylon. By making himself available and distributing smartly, he managed to keep the offence from sticking without taking up shots that should go to more talented offensive players, and ended up with a couple pretty assists and plenty more hockey ones in his 9 minutes. Jonas was dominant last night (when he was on the floor – we’ll get to that), and nobody’s suggesting the Chuckster should be stealing his minutes, but he really played a huge part in unsticking the team both offensively and defensively and turning the game from a hard fought, ugly affair into a blowout.
The beneficiary the prettiest of those assists was Tyler Hansbrough, who also deserves a lot of credit for his performance last night. Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Hansbrough has quickly asserted himself as Amir Johnson lite – a guy who doesn’t do anything flashy, but is solid in his positioning and has a real feel for the pick and roll. I’ve used the phrase “all hustle, no muscle” to describe him in the past, and I don’t mean that as a way to discount his physical abilities, but more as an explanation of the fact that this guy should not be able to be as successful as he is with his athletic ability. Instead, he plays smart, works hard, and has managed to gut out a solid NBA career – and, now, a few solid games in a row as a spot starter. Kudos, Hansbrough.
A recap of this game wouldn’t be complete without discussing the terrible refereeing that saw Jonas pinned to the bench halfway through the first quarter with three fouls, one of which was a nonexistent moving screen and a second which seemed to penalize Jonas for falling to the ground for the ball. I’m not normally one to criticize referees, but it felt like Jonas was being penalized for simply being bigger and faster than his contemporaries on the floor, which I don’t like at all. Call the game the way you would for everyone else. When Jonas was in, though, he was pretty dominant defensively – his rim protection in the third was a huge reason why the Raptors were able to stretch their lead.
There isn’t a lot more to say about last night, so I’ll wrap it up there. Four games left for Toronto as they push for 50 wins, with the next game coming Friday in Orlando and a chance to consolidate the win against Charlotte on the last game of the season. Pitchforks away for one game – the guys looked pretty solid out there tonight. Now, all that’s left to do is cross our fingers and hope for a Lowry sighting in Florida.