Gameday: Raptors @ Hornets, Dec. 20

The start of three games in four nights.

When the Toronto Raptors hosted the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 29, the game went more or less to form. The Raptors, playing much better at the time, opened up a large lead early, let Charlotte fight their way back in a shaky third quarter, then eventually put things away for a comfortable 126-113 victory. For a few weeks, it was a fairly typical win for the Raptors as they found their way with the starting lineup. For Charlotte, it was another loss in a tough 11-19 start and a 2-10 stretch.

The Hornets are not as bad a team as that record suggests, though. Kemba Walker is now healthy (or at least healthy-ish), which is a boon to their offense, and the pieces of a potential top-10 defense are all back and in place. They’re a team capable of putting up a strong fight, and they’re 9-8 at home. They’ve also managed to keep their heads up during the unfortunate absence of head coach Steve Clifford. It all makes for the same type of message from head coach Dwane Casey as the Raptors head out on a two-night back-to-back.

“They’re the same team. I don’t care who’s coaching, who’s playing, Charlotte’s always been an issue for us at Charlotte,” he said Tuesday. “They played with confidence last night against New York. They spanked New York really well. So we gotta go in with our high-beams on, ready to play, compete, and not go in and look at a record. Their style of play is physical, Dwight Howard. (Frank) Kaminsky is playing at a very high level, shooting the ball very well. And plus, this time they have Kemba Walker back, which they didn’t have when we played ’em here. So a lot of challenges. A lot of things we gotta go in mentally and physically ready to compete against.”

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again. And Casey isn’t wrong that the Raptors have struggled in Charlotte. During his tenure as head coach, the Raptors are 2-8 on the road there, though they seem to have figured it out some with two wins in their last four visits (with one overtime loss and an ugly 35-point drubbing). Toronto has defiantly made the Air Canada Centre a tough place to play with a 10-1 record there so far, but a combination of a road-heavy schedule and some occasional hubris or lethargy has them at just 9-7 on the road, an entirely reasonable mark but one they’ll want to improve on as they push for the one-seed in the Eastern Conference.

The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

Normally, I’d reach out to a Hornets writer to help set the stage. In this case, we had just reached out to Josh Priemski of At The Hive a couple of weeks ago. I’m recycling some of the answers below, updating the stats, and adding my own notes in italics.

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 27th in free throw percentage solely because of him. That’s a big deal when the Hornets are losing games by an average of about nine points and Howard’s attempting nearly eight free throw attempts per game.

His defensive impact, on the whole, is huge. I mean, only Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nic Batum 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.

Howard was dominant in the last meeting, scoring 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting with 10 rebounds and three assists opposite Jonas Valanciunas. 

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 58 percent from 10-16 feet on one attempt per game and 35 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.

Not only does Kidd-Gilchrist have the best Net Rating on the team, he ranks 14th among small forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. He was not particularly good in the last meeting between the teams but should draw the DeMar DeRozan assignment again.

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.

Batum was 3-of-9 and 1-of-3 on thees against the Raptors but stepped up as a playmaker with Walker sidelined. He remains a good defender and secondary creator, but he’s still shooting 39.6 percent from the floor and 28.1 percent on threes this year.

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.

Monk got hot in a hurry in the last meeting and has Gerald Henderson Award written all over him if he plays, which is a fairly large If.

Raptors updates
Serge Ibaka sat out Sunday’s game with knee soreness, the third individual game he’s missed to rest up. It seems likely that the Raptors wanted to buy him four consecutive days off before this three-game-in-four-night stretch, and while he’s officially listed as questionable on the injury report, he participated in practice Tuesday and seemed fine. The fact that the Raptors are leaving all four of their G League assignees/two-way players behind this week (at least as of last update) suggests there’s not much concern there, as they’ll be rolling with 11 healthy bodies.

That includes Delon Wright, who still has an undisclosed minutes restriction and might not be able to push his playing time too high in a back-to-back. Wright was in tremendous spirits talking about his shoulder recovery yesterday, which is always good to see.

Lucas Nogueira remains on the shelf on his way back from a calf tear, but it looked and sounded as if he’s drawing near a return. It seems unlikely Casey would want to expand the rotation back to 12 when he’s healthy, but Nogueira will provide another option in the frontcourt for certain matchups and on nights when Jakob Poeltl plays like the sophomore he is instead of the seasoned veteran he sometimes looks like.

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

Hornets updates
Charlotte remains without Cody Zeller, a pretty big hit to their frontcourt rotation. Frank Kaminsky has taken on an expanded role well and is always a safe bet to kill Toronto – he’s averaged 13.8 points against the Raptors, the third-most of any team he’s faced, and he’s done so on robust 59.6-percent true-shooting. Johnny O’Bryant has picked up some minutes as the team’s fourth big, and Mangok Mathiang is around if they don’t want to play small for extended stretches.

Elsewhere, things should go more or less to form. Treveon Graham is questionable but hasn’t played much anyway, and Kemba Walker’s strained wrist appears to be behind him, shifting Michael Carter-Williams back to a more appropriate back-up role. Walker and Nic Batum have both occasionally popped up on the injury report since their returns but are all clear on today’s.

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

The line
The Raptors were 8-point favorites at home without Walker. That’s flipped to Raptors -2 here, an understandable swing for home court and Walker’s return, with a 211.5 over-under.