Gameday: Hornets @ Raptors, March 29

The Raptors can continue playing spoiler on this winning streak.

It’s nice to be in a position of some security and certainty. No, the Toronto Raptors aren’t really competing for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and they’re still a game back of Washington for the third seed. But the preference between seeds is somewhat muted right now, and the Raptors have the opportunity to at least lock up home court in the first round of the playoffs on Wednesday (with a win and Atlanta/Milwaukee losses). Toronto more or less are where they are right now, and it’s no sure thing that moving up would be a net benefit. That allows them to focus inward and just worry about being at their best.

This isn’t the case for most teams, though. The Celtics want to top the Cavaliers. The Hawks, Bucks, and Pacers probably want to avoid them in round one, which means fighting for fifth or sixth. It’s getting late, but three teams are within three games of Miami’s final playoff spot, and only five games separate fifth and 11th. The stakes are high, and the Raptors have continually run into teams playing for their lives.

Have a look at their six-game winning streak:

  • Detroit – 2.5 games out
  • Indiana – Only two games up
  • Chicago – One game out
  • Miami – One game up
  • Dallas – 4.5 games out
  • Orlando – Okay, this one didn’t matter
  • Charlotte – 3 games out

Some of these matter more than others, or mattered more at the time. Still, those who looked at an “easy” schedule for the Raptors by opponent win percentage would have been wise to notice that effort level plays a big part this time of year, and playing against teams with playoff berths on the line is a tough task. Charlotte falls into that category coming off of a tough loss on Tuesday, so they should be hungry despite the back-to-back scenario. The Hornets need this. Badly. The Raptors are worried about the Raptors, but playing some spoiler is always kind of fun.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, I reached out to our own Josh Priemski (also of At The Hive), who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: Kemba Walker is turning in another great season, somehow bucking public opinion and taking yet another step forward. As Raptors fans examine a very similar season in that sense for DeMar DeRozan, there’s been a pull to contextualize his performance in terms of where it stacks up in franchise history. Is this among the better individual seasons in Hornets history, even if some advanced metrics think Walker’s 2015-16 was better?

Josh Priemski: Kemba’s season is certainly among the best seasons in Hornets history. He’s the most dynamic player the franchise has had in quite some time — probably since Gerald Wallace averaged a double-double back in 2010 — and because the franchise is relatively young, records are broken seemingly every year. That said, there’s a case to be made for each of Glen Rice, Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, and Anthony Mason, all of whom were tremendous players in their own rights.

It’s funny — back in 2011 most analysts thought the Hornets were nuts for viewing Kemba as their point guard of the future. Once he got a few years under his belt, it looked like he might be destined for a role as a backup point guard. He couldn’t shoot, his defense wasn’t great, and he wasn’t a particularly great passer. And then everything changed in 2016. His efficiency skyrocketed, he blossomed into a decent defender and the leader the Hornets needed. It’s still incredible to me that he’s shooting better than 40 percent from deep this season considering he was around 30 percent just two years ago.

In sum, there’s no question that Kemba is one of the best point guards in Hornets history.

Blake Murphy: How many white frontcourt players is too many? Can a blogger get a 10-day? RIP Mike Tobey.

Josh Priemski: Yeah, the Hornets have a lot of white bigs. There’s Cody Zeller, the team’s starting center; Frank Kaminsky, the team’s scapegoat; and Miles Plumlee, the oft-injured backup making more than he should be making. I’m certain some of it is pandering to the Carolinas’ love of white college players, but to be fair to those guys they’re quite good. Zeller’s a jumper shy of being an All-Star, Kaminsky looks like he’ll be good for 15 points and eight rebounds a night in a couple of years, and Plumlee’s basically Zeller lite.

I can’t stress enough how good Zeller is. He’s easily one of the most athletic bigs in the league and sets absolutely brutal screens.

And no, I don’t think you could get a 10-day.

Blake Murphy: How has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist come along over his first full season since his rookie year? I’ve been dreaming on his defensive potential forever, but it’s his offensive game that’s been threatened more with the constant stops and starts. What does he bring to a matchup opposite, say, a DeRozan?

Josh Priemski: Kidd-Gilchrist’s development has slowed a bit this year. Most of us were expecting a big year from him with career highs across the board. After all, he shot 43 percent from deep in the seven games he appeared in last season and is known to be an extremely hard worker. But it never happened.

He’s still awfully good, mind you. He’s a defensive menace and the engine in any lineup. I mean, this dude has a (vegetarian) burger named after him in Charlotte called the MKG: Motor Keeps Going.

MKG’s essentially the opposite of DeRozan in that he’s a phenomenal defensive player and a not-so-great-but-serviceable offensive player. Historically, MKG’s held DeMar below his career averages. You can credit MKG’s length and effort for that. However, things are a bit different now — DeRozan’s the best he’s ever been on offense and MKG’s slipped a bit defensively, so it’s entirely possible DeRozan lights him up. And because of how aggressive MKG is on defense, DeRozan should be successful if he gets MKG in foul trouble.

Blake Murphy: The Hornets find themselves two games out of a playoff spot and running out of time, with the added hurdle of extra teams to jump to reach eighth. But the Pistons aren’t particularly good and the Bulls are banged up. How much optimism do you have left that Charlotte could sneak in?

Josh Priemski: Our opinion on the Hornets’ playoff chances changes pretty much every day. A couple of weeks ago the draft lottery seemed like a foregone conclusion, and many fans called for the team to accept this fate and tank the rest of the season. Then Zeller returned and the team started playing well again. Zeller’s that important to the Hornets. They’re 30-23 with him and 3-17 without him this season.

I really don’t know if they’ll make the playoffs. They’ve played well lately but it might be too late. They have to rely on other teams screwing up in addition to finishing the season strong themselves. It’s been a weird year.

Blake Murphy: If they don’t, where does this franchise go from here? They’ve invested in a core that, short of Kidd-Gilchrist, doesn’t have a great deal of upside left to tape into. They can be good – better than this season, at least – but the window to strike is these next two seasons when Walker remains cheap. Are heads set to roll, with the direction changing?

Josh Priemski: I think the team stays more or less the same if they miss the playoffs. They don’t have much money to spend this summer, so they’ll be reliant on the draft and the trade market to improve.

This was a crappy season. An assortment of injuries to key players and a lack of depth did them in between December and February. When everyone’s healthy they’re still quite good — and young. The Hornets’ core pieces — Kemba, MKG, Zeller, Kaminsky, Lamb — are all under 26 years old, after all. Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, and Marco Belinelli are the Hornets’ oldest players and they’re not all that old. And, for what seems like the first time ever, the bottom of the Hornets’ bench is loaded with young, unproven players.

So no, I’d expect the team to try again with this roster next season. Maybe they package Lamb and Kaminsky for a bigger piece or something but for the most part this will be the team you’ll see next year too.

Raptors updates
Because the Raptors didn’t practice Tuesday, we don’t have updates on Kyle Lowry (as if) and DeMarre Carroll. Carroll’s missed the last two games with a sore back after taking a nasty fall against Miami, which has opened the door for P.J. Tucker to start. There’s been a lot of talk among the fanbase of potentially starting Tucker long term, something Eric Koreen and I broke down at The Athletic yesterday (you can use this link for 20 percent off a subscription). The starting lineup has been better with Tucker than with Carroll or Norman Powell, but the samples are somewhat small and noisy, and the return of Lowry will fix a lot of what’s ailed the team early on in games. But hey, Tucker is great, and it’s nice that the Raptors have multiple options to start in that place as health and matchups dictate.

Otherwise, you know the deal for the Hornets by now. Their bigs are a difficult test, with Frank Kaminsky able to pull a center away from the rim and Cody Zeller standing as one of the better under-the-radar/intangibles bigs out there. Charlotte starting small with Marvin Williams is less of a challenge now with Serge Ibaka present, and you can expect some free switching two-through-four behind the point of attack, and to help Cory Joseph on Kemba Walker.

PG: Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: (DeMarre Carroll), P.J. Tucker
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: DeMarre Carroll
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam
OUT: Kyle Lowry

Hornets updates
The Hornets come in a little banged up, but they’re nearing a return to health, and none of the injured parties are all that paramount to their success. Ramon Sessions is the most notable, and he’s (finally) been cleared to play following knee surgery, though he’s yet to get back into the rotation. Briante Weber is a really nice prospect, so there’s little reason to shoehorn Sessions in unless Weber starts to struggle. Miles Plumlee has likewise been cleared, his calf injury behind him, but he’ll have to wait for minutes around the rest of Charlotte’s big white centers. Johnny O’Bryant could theoretically be in the mix at some point, too, though he’s still not all the way back from a sprained ankle. (Plumlee was the only one of these three active on Tuesday.)

Having this starting lineup in tact is great for head coach Steve Clifford, as they’ve been a strong positive (7.4 net rating) over a large sample (669 minutes) this year. In fact, five of Clifford’s six most commonly used lineups are positives, as are seven of the top nine, meaning he’s really got some nice options here he can go to. It’s not all that surprising since the Hornets are above average on both ends of the floor, but their record confuses just how good this team can actually be when firing on all cylinders and, most importantly, healthy.

PG: Kemba Walker, (Ramon Sessions), Briante Weber, Brian Roberts
SG: Nicolas Batum, Marco Belinelli
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Treveon Graham
PF: Marvin Williams, Christian Wood
C: Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, (Miles Plumlee), (Johnny O’Bryant)
OUT: None
TBA: Ramon Sessions, Miles Plumlee, Johnny O’Bryant

The Line
The Raptors are 6.5-point favorites, with a nice little bump there for Charlotte’s back-to-back situation (nobody played more than 33 minutes, but we know by now how daunting traveling in a back-to-back is). The over-under being up at 205 is perhaps a little surprising given the defenses here and both teams playing at a below-average pace.