Gameday: Hornets @ Raptors, Nov. 29

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It feels like it’s been a minute since the Toronto Raptors were last in action. Coming off of three days off, amidst a stretch of just three games in 13 days, things feel almost casual, with a sort of training camp vibe to them. The schedule turning lighter and home-heavier is unquestionably a positive, but the disruption of routine does pose somewhat of a threat, one the Raptors are aware of and ready to neutralize.

“It’s just different. You’ve got to adjust,” Fred VanVleet said Monday. “It doesn’t disrupt anything any more than a back-to-back or four games in five nights, it’s just different. You have to adjust to the rhythm of how things are going and like I said, it’s game time, practice, time, film time, treatment and just trust your work will carry over into games.”

There shouldn’t really be trap games considering how the Raptors lost two games last week, and they’ll need to bring the appropriate energy to take care of the visiting Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday. Even at 8-11 and possibly down Kemba Walker, the Hornets are the type of smart, well-coached team that can take advantage of a listless opponent, and they’re not really willing to make the kind of mistakes that let you back into a game. Nobody turns the ball over less frequently than Charlotte, they’re among the league’s best rebounding teams, and they play a conservative defensive style that’s going to force the Raptors to beat them with shot-making rather than the transition game or free throws. It’s a nice challenge after a little break.

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

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

Blake Murphy: The Hornets acquired Dwight Howard for very little this offseason, with Steve Clifford betting he could get more out of him than his last few stops were able to. It was a reasonable gamble, given the cost, and while the Hornets are out to a tough start, Howard’s been pretty good, at least on defense. How pleased have you been with Howard’s impact? Or is this a case of a move that’s been fine in results but is disagreeable in terms of the initial reasoning behind it?

Josh Priemski: Howard, on the whole, has been a huge positive for the Hornets. His (long) history with Hornets head coach Steve Clifford was a major reason the Hornets felt he was salvageable, and thus far Clifford’s done a tremendous job of incorporating him into the offense.

Of course, adding Howard has also had its downsides. For example, the Hornets are currently 29th in free throw percentage solely because of him. In fact, if you squeeze Dwight out of the team’s stats, the Hornets would rank fourth in free throw percentage at 80.8 percent. That’s a big deal when the Hornets are losing games by an average of about nine points and Howard’s attempting nearly nine free throw attempts per game.

His defensive impact, on the whole, is huge. I mean, only Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker have higher defensive ratings this season, and those two play the majority of their minutes alongside Howard. There are some issues with effort at times–dude does check out as his rep suggests–but he’s been a boon to Clifford’s defense-first approach.

Frankly, it’s hard to gauge just how good the Hornets are with Howard when they’ve only been completely healthy for a few games this season. Everyone’s back now, though, so we should figure that out soon.

Blake Murphy: Why is it so lonely on this Michael Kidd-Gilchrist bandwagon? Everyone’s left me. Hello?

Josh Priemski: I wish I knew, man. Still love me some MKG.

He missed several games to start the year because of his grandmother’s declining health and upon returning looked a little rusty. He looks like he’s lost a bit of weight, too, which is concerning because he wasn’t that big to begin with.

But with each passing game he’s looked more and more comfortable. I was worried he might struggle with how Howard occupies the interior on offense but his jump shot has been–and I know this might come as a surprise–quite good. He’s not shooting 3-pointers at all, mind you, but he’s shooting 57 percent from 10-16 feet on roughly three attempts per game and 37 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line.

He’s still an unbelievable defender and can single-handedly will his team back into a game with his effort alone. I wouldn’t sell. Dude has at least another five years ahead of him before he peaks.

Blake Murphy: Nicolas Batum is back after an early season elbow injury that must have scared Hornets fans given the varied nature of the reported timelines. How much of a difference does Batum make for this team, both as a shooter and a defensive weapon? Has he looked like himself since returning?

Josh Priemski: Hornets fans sometimes debate whether Kemba or Batum is more important to the Hornets’ success, and I think that’s indicative of just how well he fits on this team.

He’s not going to score 30 points every night or slam on defenders all that often, but Batum facilitates everything the Hornets want to do offensively with ease. He makes the correct reads, breaks from plays at the perfect time, and by and large knows how to make himself useful in mostly any lineup he finds himself in. This is especially helpful for Kemba, whom prior to Batum’s arrival handled the ball on mostly every possession. With Batum (and Dwight, for that matter), the Hornets’ offense is a little more difficult to predict. It’s nice to have options.

He’s shot the ball miserably this season, but I’d attribute that to the rust that comes with injuring your elbow. Given time I think we’ll see his shooting percentages rise.

Blake Murphy: Cody Zeller: The best of the Zeller-Plumlee big-man tree by a large margin, yes?

Josh Priemski: I’d think so. He’s seldom going to impress you with his box score stats, but he’s undoubtedly a pretty good player.

Offensively, Zeller not only sets some of the most brutal screens in the league but he’s adept at using his body to create space for others more generally. He’s also reckless and not afraid of a good elbow to the nose if it means he can recover the ball for his team. I’ve lost count, but dude’s broken his nose at least twice and is good for a handful of bloody noses each season. He gets after it.

I half-jokingly suggested he might be better than Dwight earlier this season. Not necessarily individually–Dwight’s the better scorer, rebounder, etc–but with regard to how he fits into a lineup and makes things easier for his teammates, I think there’s a real case to be made. Cody’s a winner.

Blake Murphy: Malik Monk is off to a cold shooting start, which is a little surprising, but it’s not hard to see that outside stroke stabilizing with more reps and a larger sample. How has he looked beyond just the 3-point shot? Are you still happy with landing him at No. 11?

Josh Priemski: His playing time dropped off a cliff when Batum returned.

There’s little doubt Monk can score. No shot is a bad shot in his eyes, and that’s largely the reason his percentages are so poor. He has no issue whatsoever with launching a contested 3-pointer from 26 feet with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. My summation is that once he gets some more reps he’ll calm down some and make a bigger impact.

Defensively, though, he’s not great. He’s small, he’s thin, and his awareness leaves a lot to be desired. He’ll surely improve with time but that’s the primary reason Clifford’s moved away from him. In fact, Clifford’s played Dwayne Bacon over him for most of this season and Bacon was drafted in the second round.

I think what’s most surprised me about Monk is that I thought he’d be a better ball handler. Earlier this season the Hornets had no one to play point guard behind Kemba and we saw Monk fill in as a backup. I expected him to be kind of Lou Williams-ish in that he’s a scorer that can facilitate somewhat when necessary but he’s not there yet.

He’s definitely worth the 11th pick. Just needs time.

Raptors updates
With C.J. Miles back after two games off for the birth of his child, the Raptors enter this one mostly healthy. Delon Wright is out but is already back to dribbling and doing conditioning work with his injured right shoulder, and DeMar DeRozan returned to practice Tuesday after getting Monday off, having banged his left knee on the weekend. The Raptors are in the midst of a stretch of just three games – all at home – in 13 days, so it’s a great time for everyone to round back into health and rehabilitate any minor issues that have been plaguing them.

The big thing to watch Wednesday will be the battle inside, as Jonas Valanciunas draws a more natural opponent in Dwight Howard. Valanciunas has historically done a decent job opposite Howard, averaging 10.6 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in seven career meetings, although only one has been a victory. They met three times last year, with one game being a minor disaster for Valanciunas offensively, one seeing Howard go off offensively, and the other being played roughly to a draw. Given his oscillating role against centers he’s less suited for in recent games, Valanciunas is looking forward to the chance to bang inside here.

“Yeah, you know, every night is different, different guy. Now tomorrow we have Dwight Howard, which is playing inside more,” he said Tuesday. “So it’s always good to battle somebody like me.”

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Delon Wright
TBD: None
905: Malcolm Miller, Bruno Caboclo

Hornets updates
The Raptors’ run of meeting teams down a key player could continue here, as Kemba Walker is doubtful due to a shoulder injury. Walker hurt the shoulder on Saturday against the San Antonio Spurs and, while he returned to that game, he missed practice Tuesday and had his status downgraded. Obviously, if he can’t go, that’s an enormous loss for Charlotte’s offense, as Walker is a dynamic scoring threat and playmaker who’s shown a flair for the dramatic against the Raptors in recent years.

If Walker sits, Michael Carter-Williams will draw the start at point guard, according to head coach Steve Clifford. With Julyan Stone also on the shelf, that would leave only Marcus Paige (who we can probably assume will be called up from the G League) or an out-of-position player (Malik Monk? Nicolas Batum?) as depth. A former Rookie of the Year, Carter-Williams is averaging 10.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.9 steals per-36 minutes, shooting a paltry 24.2 percent from the floor. He’s a long and game defender, though.

Elsewhere, Frank Kaminsky is expected to play through a sprained right foot. Jeremy Lamb also left Saturday’s game with a hamstring strain, but the Hornets haven’t released game notes yet for us to know if he’s on the injury report.

PG: (Kemba Walker), Michael Carter-Williams
SG: Nicolas Batum, Malik Monk, Treveon Graham
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Dwayne Bacon
PF: Marvin Williams, (Frank Kaminsky), Johnny O’Bryant
C: Dwight Howard, Cody Zeller
OUT: Julyan Stone
TBD: Kemba Walker, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb
Greensboro: Marcus Paige, Mangok Mathiang

The line
The Raptors are 8-point favorites with a 207.5 over-under.

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