The Charlotte Hornets are a pesky bunch. Especially so for the Toronto Raptors, who coming into last night, had lost 42 games all-time to the Charlotte franchise (including the Bobcats), to just 34 wins. And that’s not just one of those historical stats that are completely irrelevant – the struggle has been real. Just take last season, when the Raptors were steamrolled in Charlotte by a whopping 35 points on Martin Luther King Day. Or at home in March 2017, when Kemba Walker and Marco Belinelli went off in the final minutes to seal a disappointing loss for the Raps. Heck, our guy Will Lou even created an award named after the famed Gerald Henderson, who got that nickname playing for…you guessed it, Charlotte.
So, when the prospect of a season series sweep of the Hornets was made possible coming into last night’s contest (the last sweep coming in the 2006-07 season), it was a sign that things really have changed for this Raptor team. Not only has the style and culture changed around this team this season, but limiting those disappointing losses has been a big change this year. Winning games in the NBA can’t be taken for granted, and no matter how you slice it – in the regular season standings – wins against the Hornets or other non-playoff teams count exactly the same as wins against Cleveland, Boston, or anybody else. So, with the Celtics losing last night in Houston against James Harden and the Rockets, taking care of business against the Hornets was still important in keeping the Raptors’ grip on the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The starting small forward spot has been a bit of a roller coaster for Dwane Casey all year, and in light of the ankle injury to OG Anunoby, the well documented struggles of Norman Powell, and CJ Miles’ firm role on the bench, the Raptors opted to go with Malcolm Miller at the 3 spot last night – the undrafted product of the Raptors905, who spent a year playing in Germany, and signed the first two-way deal in franchise history enroute to making his way onto the roster. With a solid amount of length, and a competent 3-point stroke, Miller has been an intriguing 25-year old project – and with the perfect storm of circumstances, he got his first career start in the NBA. And while Miller was 0 for 2 in his performance last night, with no real box-score impact, he certainly didn’t look phased by the moment and was a +5 on the night.
As for the rest of the starting lineup, the Raptors got a huge boost from their front court, especially Jonas Valanciunas. To go along with his 13 boards, JV had his 6th game of the year with multiple 3-pointers made (2/3 on the night), as he continues to hoist ‘em up with confidence when left open. Shooting over 47% from 3 (on 53 attempts) means that this thing doesn’t look like it’s a gimmick anymore. Sure, I don’t expect him to be hitting these off the dribble or with a hand in the face any time soon – but combined with Ibaka (who hit 3 of his own on the night), the ability of the Raptors front court to shoot from deep adds a whole new element of spacing to this offense. Come April and May, that could be the type of ingredient it takes to unlock this offense in the playoffs. We’ve seen the spacing tighten up and the shooting of Kyle and DeMar grind to a halt in those moments, so having as many weapons as possible in Dwane Casey’s offensive schemes is going to be critical.
The shooting of our other 3-point specialists however, was not great to say the least. The Raptors shot a combined 12/41 from deep, thanks a ton of missed wide open looks (I counted at least 5 attempts which rolled around the rim, before promptly popping out). From CJ (who was 2/9), to Norm (0/2), to even Fred VanVleet (who was 1/4), it just wasn’t Toronto’s night shooting the basketball from deep. Bringing those percentages closer to 40% will be critical if the Raptors hope to translate their goal of shooting more 3’s into making more 3’s (despite shooting the 5th most 3’s in the league, the Raptors still rank 20th in accuracy). But hey, it’s great to know that the culture truly has changed – and if Casey really is serious about the permanent green-light philosophy for the Raptors’ marksmen, then it means continuing to believe and shoot those open opportunities throughout the night, despite how hot or cold our shooters are.
While it hasn’t exactly been an issue for the Raptors this year, another one of the uglier parts of last night was the turnovers. The Raptors, who average just over 13 turnovers a game, had 15 last night, 5 of which came in the final period. It led to 20 points for the Hornets, giving them the requisite energy to get them back in the game in the fourth quarter. It was one of the uglier quarters of the season for Toronto, on account of sloppy offensive execution, some suspect shot selection and a lack of movement overall. And if it wasn’t for a couple of bail-out 3’s by Kyle and DeMar in the last 5 minutes, this thing could’ve easily gotten out of hand.
But, despite what Dwane Casey might tell the media after games like this, a win is a win. And with yet another W last night (the 11th in their past 12 games), Toronto is now 2 games up on the Celtics (3 games ahead in the loss column) with 20 games remaining in the regular season. That’s critical for the Raptors, who play Boston twice more this season, and are gunning for the first seed in the East for the vital advantages it can provide in the post-season. All playoff teams aren’t created equally, and for Toronto – seeding is important. It means home court advantange throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and for a team that’s 26-5 at home, that’s pretty important.
With that, the Raptors will look ahead to Atlanta on Tuesday. The Hawks are obviously terrible, so we’d expect a win there, but stranger things have happened in this league. And with the Rockets coming into town on Friday for what will be an intense matchup to say the least, taking care of business against the lowly Hawks (and the Pistons on Wednesday) will be critical in their continuing effort to build up a comfortable cushion atop the Eastern Conference. Tip-off on Tuesday is 7 pm.