With an imposing four-game winning streak on the line, the Raptors will travel to Charlotte to face newly-minted all-star, Kemba Walker. And when I say imposing, I mean it: the Raptors have been simply dominant. They’ve won their last four by an average of 21.3 points, including a romp over the almost full-strength (minus newly acquired Greg Monroe) Celtics. The team only barely bothered to try against the undermanned Knicks, whose best player was probably the long-lost Plumlee, Luke Kornet. The Raps won by 25 points, despite a combined 15 points from their star backcourt.
The Hornets present a different challenge. Kemba Walker has always given the Raptors fits with his incredible speed, smooth handles, and unexpected finishes. He belongs in the all-star game over Ben Simmons, and probably over a few others who will be playing. Walker has always been a pest for the Raptors to contain, as Lowry has had trouble staying in front of him, while bigs like Valanciunas have, in the past, been unable to provide deterrence in the pick and roll. Valanciunas’ defence has been vastly improved of late, and Walker will be an impressive test.
Walker has led the Hornets admirably since his trade rumours began approximately 10 games ago. He’s scored almost 27 points per game, leading the out-of-the-playoff Hornets to a 5-5 record. Look closer and they’ve struggled against above-.500 teams, with losses to the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Pacers, Heat, and Pelicans. The Raptors have dominated inferior opponents all season, but Steve Clifford is a good coach and always gets his team up. Furthermore, the Hornets are 15-14 at home on the season, so the Raptors can’t take this game for granted.
The game tips-off at 1:00 PM Eastern on TSN 4/5.
To help set the stage for the game, I chatted with Evan Dyal writer (and podcaster) extraordinaire at many sports and non-sports sites alike. He writes at FanSided’s Sir Charles and SBNation’s At The Hive, and he hosts a pod for offtheglassbasketball.com called ‘Player Watch’.
Louis Zatzman: The Hornets seem to be collecting centers. I thought Cody Zeller was awesome last year with his dirty work, sort of like a slightly-better Aron Baynes, but then they went and got Dwight. Now Willy Hernangomez, banished for speaking Spanish in the locker room with Kristaps? What gives? Is another trade coming up? Will they premier the much-vaunted 1-out, 4-in lineup?
Evan Dyal: The Hornets now have a logjam in the frontcourt with Cody Zeller, Dwight Howard, Frank Kaminsky and newly acquired Willy Hernagomez. Dwight has been good for the Hornets this year and will remain the starter, but Zeller has more value. He offers a little more spacing and is better at defending on the perimeter; he is also is an excellent screener. Kaminsky has been hit and miss this season, but will still get minutes at the four behind Marvin Williams, and even a few minutes at the five in small lineups. The question is how Hernagomez will fit in? My guess is he won’t play much early on, but as the season goes on, they may try to play him and Zeller together. Neither can shoot threes, but both can shoot from the midrange. No way all four of these guys will be on the team next year.
Louis Zatzman: Speaking about trades, what’s the deal with Kemba? Since the trade rumours, he was balling out of control, but has since cooled off. He’s still scoring almost 27 ppg in his last 10 (although inefficiently). What’s his future with the team? And what does the team look like without the smooth handler at the controls?
Evan Dyal: Kemba is remaining with the Hornets. The only way he would of left is if the Hornets got an all-star in return, a draft pick and were able to shed a contract. No one was going to give them all three of those. If he survives the offseason is another question, Charlotte still desperately needs to shed cap, and attacking it to Kemba may be the best way to do it. He is a free agent in 2019 and will be tough to resign in their current cap situation. As for Kemba’s play on the court he has been sensational recently, basically carrying the Hornets offense. Since the trade rumors and the all-star snub, Kemba has been magnificent. While he is not that efficient, he has delivered a couple of monster scoring games. Kemba is the only person on the team who can consistently get his own shot and without him the offense craters to horrible levels. With Kemba on the floor, the Hornets play like a 45 win team, without him they play like a 25 win team.
Louis Zatzman: On the whole, the Hornets season has been somewhat disappointing. I never count Steve Clifford out of the playoffs, but it seems like that’s not in the cards this year. What are the best / worst case scenarios for the rest of the season?
Evan Dyal: Charlotte has underperformed this season. Before the year I thought they would be a six or seven seed. Injuries have been a big part, but Charlotte also has been too inconsistent. A best-case scenario is the hornets sneak into an eight seed and are least competitive, worst case the bottom falls out under of them, and they enter tank mode. Honestly tanking may the best thing for the team, but I don’t see the Hornets doing it, they will fight it out until the end.
Louis Zatzman: Let’s get to the, you know, actual game. The Raptors are 2-0 on the season series, but Kemba missed the first contest. Jeremy Lamb played well in both games, and Dwight was great in one and solid in another. What do you think the story is going to be tonight?
Evan Dyal: In both games against the Raptors this season, the Hornets had no answer for the Raptors offense and both games have been blowouts. Toronto had 126 in the first game and 129 in the next. Lowry destroyed the Hornets with 36 in the first game, and O.G Anuoby had six threes in the second game. Toronto seemed to have too many weapons for the Hornets to handle. The good news is the offense was good in both matchups including one without Kemba. Lamb provided good scoring off the bench in both games, and Dwight had his way in Valanucinas int he first matchup. In this game for the Hornets to have a chance, Dwight will again have to be dominant, and Kemba will need to explode. Charlotte has been struggling on defense as of late, and I don’t think they will be able to slow down the Raptors firepower on Sunday.
Louis Zatzman: In my mind, Frank Kaminsky has never missed a shot he’s taken against the Raptors. Is that a thing? How do the Hornets faithful feel about Frank the Tank?
Evan Dyal: Frank does always seem to have a good game against the Raptors. However this year and really for his career he has been inconsistent. He will have a game with twenty points, and then three games straight of four to ten points. If he is not making his shots he doesn’t offer much else, as he is a poor rebounder and defender, but an underrated passer. Hornets fans are frustrated with Frank as he hasn’t improved much in his third year and doesn’t have much upside. If he doesn’t play better down the stretch this season, he may be on a new team next season.
Toronto is healthy! I don’t think they’ve had a guy play 30+ minutes for a month, so even their oldest knees and achingest joints are as pain-free as possible. With the all-star break in sight, the Raptors have lots of rest coming up, which is a huge benefit for players like Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and C.J. Miles. The young guns don’t need the rest, but we know that they’re the real Rising Stars.
While Valanciunas looked to have hurt his foot against the Celtics – and didn’t return – the team insists he’s fine. He also managed to absolutely dominate the Knicks in the few minutes for which he was required, so don’t stress the foot.
Finally, Bruno Caboclo is no longer available. After four years of development, experimentation, and Twitter-joke-making, the team used him as salary ballast to open space for the buyout market. That’s… not great looking. Caboclo is by all accounts a great person, who was always happy (in my brief experiences) to chat Xs and Os and basketball in general, even after tough outings. He’ll be missed both in Toronto and Mississauga (mostly the latter), and here’s hoping he’ll put it together in Sacramento to become an NBA rotation player. I believe in him.
Zo Brown and Malcolm Miller will likely be with the 905, who played last night in Florida. Alfonzo McKinnie was with the 905 in Lakeland, but I’m not sure if he’ll rejoin the team.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: Alfonzo McKinnie
905: Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown
The Hornets have played much more in the past few days than the Raps, including an OT loss to the Blazers on the 8th during which Kemba dropped 40 and a loss on Friday to the streaking Jazz. Malik Monk is having trouble breaking into the rotation, and he’s frequently to be found down with the Swarm getting consistent G-League minutes.
Hernangomez is available, as the trade is confirmed, but he may not play. Hornets beat reporter Rick Bonnell reports that the team will likely hold him out until he has a chance to practice with the Hornets. If he does play, he’ll join a very clogged center rotation. Cody Zeller is great and underused, and Frank Kamisky is probably best-used as a center himself. Then there’s Dwight, who’s actually having a solid season. At least Willy can be happy that no matter what, Charlotte will be better (basketball) than New York, where he was backing up the gone-from-the-team, but-also-from-this-world Joakim Noah.
PG: Kemba Walker, Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone
SG: Nicolas Batum, Treveon Graham
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Dwayne Bacon
PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky
C: Dwight Howard, Cody Zeller
TBD: Willy Hernangomez, Malik Monk
Greensboro: Marcus Paige, Mangok Mathiang
Raptors -3, so I’m off to go bet my entire life savings. Can I possibly be reading that right?