This has been one of the most impressive weeks in franchise history, and apparently not even a Sunday afternoon game could ruin that for the Raptors. The Hornets have been a better team than their record this season, and Dwight Howard and Kemba Walker both have a history of delivering massive performances playing against Toronto, so this one had a chance of being a trap game.
It started out headed in that direction, too, with a Howard bucket in the paint being followed up by two threes for Kemba and a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist jumper to have the home team out to a very quick 10-0 lead. A quick timeout for Dwane Casey was enough to right the ship though, as Ibaka came out and got the team on the board, and from there the Raptors were paced by a strong defensive effort and efficient scoring from DeMar DeRozan and Ibaka, as well as a pair of threes from Kyle Lowry. The All-Stars coming out with one of their best quarters of the past week was enough to generate a small four-point lead at the end of the quarter, with Kemba’s 8 points and 4 assists and Dwight’s 9 points and 8 boards leading the way for the Hornets.
Of course, the second quarter brought the first bench stretch for the Raptors, and they picked up right where they’ve been all week, running up the lead to 13 by the midpoint of the second, with tough defense and CJ Miles’ sharpshooting, as he scored 9 in the frame. However, the starters came back into the game at that point, and Charlotte was able to bring it back with Kemba contributing another 10, with five of those coming in the last minute to reduce the lead to 7 at half. Ibaka’s strong play continued, but the offense stagnated and the dip in energy level from the bench mob to the starters was palpable.
With just over a minute to go in the half, OG Anunoby appeared to tweak his ankle and was visibly limping. After heading to the locker room, the Raptors announced that he was out with a sprained ankle and wouldn’t return.
Norman Powell got the start in the second half with OG unavailable, and he came out with a strong defensive effort, but it was the two-man game of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas that really got the Raptors rolling in the third. Each guy hit a pair of three-pointers, and their chemistry generated good look after good look, with 22 of the Raptors 28 in the frame to those two players and Kyle Lowry scoring the remaining 6 on a pair of threes. As good as the offense was, it really was the defense that impressed for this group, who might be the new starters if Anunoby is to miss any extended time.
Then came the fourth quarter, and the rout was on in a hurry. CJ Miles put up a quick 12 points, hitting a trio of threes and getting the four-point play on one of them, Fred Van Vleet had a couple of his own, and this game felt over just like that. The Hornets made a run in garbage time to reduce the end deficit to 20, but this game really wasn’t that close, and the starters once again got the fourth quarter off, which brings it to five games in a row. One of the big concerns for the team in years past has been the minutes load for DeRozan and Lowry, and they’re both down considerably this season, thanks in large part to the success of this second unit.
A skeptic would say that this is in no way sustainable, the Raptors bench can’t keep this up, and in an absolute sense they’d be right. The bench in the last five games has a net rating of +71.3 in 56 minutes, and there is no chance that they will hold that up for the rest of the season. At the same time, this group has been playing against units where opponents have been incorporating more starters to try to stem the tide, and it’s not working. They play as a group, bring it hard on defense on every possession, and as long as CJ Miles and Fred Van Vleet can hit their shots that the offense creates, they score enough to generate leads.
Either way, however much regression is due the Raptors later, this is a fun ride right now, and the team has just two games left before the All-Star break. With Boston having lost to Cleveland today as well, Toronto now has a 1.5 game lead for first place in the East, and the opportunity to stretch that lead with the Celtics struggling.