51-23; what are you gonna do?
Three – Unsustainable: Smallball lineups will definitely come in handy in the playoffs, but the Raptors should have never needed to hit the panic button in the first place. Toronto simply didn’t match Charlotte’s urgency — as evidenced by the 14-3 disparity in offensive rebounds — and Nick Nurse made matters worse by playing an over-aggressive style of defense that prioritized denying Kemba Walker at all costs. Walker only shot 3-of-17 as a result, but the Hornets shot 41 threes and made 18, which is what ultimately killed the Raptors. The same pattern played out against Russell Westbrook on Friday.
The Raptors signalled that they were thinking about championships when they made the blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard last summer. Siakam’s growth is one of the primary reasons the dream could become reality.
Measure it any way you want and Siakam has become the equivalent of a top-five or even top-three pick, matching the eye test and the story told by his raw numbers.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Siakam ranks second in his draft class in career WinShares with 14.5, trailing only Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, who was taken first that year. Siakam is second in Value Over Replacement Player and is third in WS/48 minutes and Box Score Plus/Minus.
Siakam is almost certain to go down as the best draft pick the Raptors have ever made. As a team, the Raptors are a collection of players who have vastly out-performed their draft position. Lowry was taken 24th in 2006 and ranks third in his class in WinShares; Leonard was taken 15th in 2011 and ranks second in his class; Gasol was taken 48th in 2007 and is third in WinShares. Fred VanVleet was undrafted; Danny Green was a second-round pick.
The Raptors don’t have a lottery pick on their roster, they just have plenty of players who play like one, Siakam only the most obvious example.
I asked Raptors head coach Nick Nurse what he’s noticed in his six seasons as an NBA coach about players who seem to rise once they make the league compared with those that never reach the potential projected for them — like pretty much the entire Hornets roster.
“I think one of the things that I notice is that [they] understand really quickly the work day of a professional basketball player,” said Nurse. “… It’s a day that you’ve gotta get used to putting in and be able to handle it, almost matter-of-factly. It just doesn’t bother you that that’s your work day. I think that’s right at the top of the list.
“And then I think courage goes up there next, you know, guys that have the courage to go out on the floor and start making plays, to just let it all hang out and go for it,’ said Nurse. “They’re not worried about their last miss, they’re still gonna make the next play [and] right team, right time, right place, right team, right place, opportunity.”
After a solid start that got Toronto out to a 12-point lead, the energy and play that got them there disappeared for the next 2.5 quarters and that 12-point lead turned into a 14-point deficit.
The Hornets scored 31 in the second quarter and 37 in the third as they went to the three-point well early and often hitting 10-of-15 from distance in the third quarter alone.
“We didn’t play well enough,” point guard Kyle Lowry said. “Energy in the second quarter and the third quarter … just didn’t play well. They hit a lot of threes. We weren’t sharp tonight.”
The Raptors turned the ball over 13 times, the bulk of those in the first half and were out-rebounded on the offensive glass 14-3, making the second-chance points battle a rather one-sided affair by a 20-9 count in Charlotte’s favour.
“At times we were not that committed to the game plan,” centre Marc Gasol said. “Five guys, we had doubt and dialogue and debates, too many of them. I thought it was pretty clear. And then it was finishing possessions with rebounds. The times we got stops, we couldn’t finish them. It came back in the end and bit us.”
The Hornets wound up with 18 makes from behind the arc in this one. Combined with the loss to Oklahoma City on Friday, that’s 38 threes allowed in the past two games by Toronto. Obviously it’s too many, but it seems like more of a product of trying to take something else away.
“Two games in a row we tried to kind of go get the star player, get the ball out of his hands and make it difficult for them and kind of succeeded in that,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Put onus on their secondary guys to beat us and it’s two games in a row where they made a lot of shots.”
You want to have your initial game plan work well enough that you do not need all of those options, but at least with a fully healthy roster, Nurse has those options on which he can fall back. Or at least it is a mostly healthy roster.
Lowry played 28 minutes in his return and did not look terribly out of place with a seven-point, six-assist performance. In the third quarter, as the Raptors fought to stay in the game, he even had some aggressive drives to the hoop, rare sights this season.
However, Lowry said this left ankle sprain is worse than the right ankle sprain that cost him two games a week prior. It sounds like it is much worse.
“It’s not going to be 100 percent the whole season, I can tell you that right now,” Lowry said postgame. “But I will get to the point where I will be able to move and cut and run the way I really want to run. It takes time. It’s a work in progress, and this was a good first step for me.
“I just want to get out there. I can sit out until the playoffs with the type of injury I have, but I want to play. I want to keep a rhythm, get out there with the guys and play some basketball. If I can get out there and play, I’m going to go play. It could take me a while for this one to really heal but you don’t want that. It’s going to take too long. So I’m just going to get out there and go play and deal with it as it goes.”
It is fair to wonder where the consistency is with the Raptors concerning the health of their best players. With Leonard, the Raptors have taken every precaution imaginable. With Lowry, the team allowed him to come back two games after an ankle sprain in a low-leverage game against Charlotte. The situations are different, as Leonard is coming off an injury that cost him most of last season, not to mention the off-the-court considerations that are at play. Still, Lowry is nearly as important to the Raptors’ fortune as Leonard is, yet the approach seems vastly different. Maybe that’s a reflection of the players and their personalities, maybe it is in accordance with their specific injuries or maybe it is both.
We might not get clarification on that in the coming days and weeks. Like it or not, Lowry is going to play. Like it or not, he is not going to be as healthy as everyone would prefer. As such, it is incumbent on Nurse to see what works, and what does not. Eight games to go.
The Toronto Raptors had a chance to put a dagger through the heart of the Charlotte Hornets in the game’s final seconds, but Kawhi Leonard’s jumper went begging. Devonte’ Graham hauled in the rebound and gave the Hornets one more chance, down two points. After the Raptors gave their foul to give, the Hornets had 3.1 seconds to tie or win the game. The inbound pass was deflected into the back court. All Jeremy Lamb could do was pick it up and heave it.
It went in.
It capped off a roller coaster of a second half. The Hornets turned a one point lead into a twelve point lead over the span of the third quarter, thanks in large part to a franchise record ten 3-pointers in the frame. Dwayne Bacon hit five of those himself.
The Charlotte Hornets have now won three consecutive games with their latest win over the Toronto Raptors. On Sunday night, the teams’ prayers were answered with a miracle half-court shot at the buzzer; this would give the Hornets a 115-114 victory.
Charlotte came into this game knowing it would be a tough one after beating the Boston Celtics the night before at home. This road win would move the Hornets up to a 34-39 record, and keep’s their playoff hopes alive.
Just like the win over Boston, this win was earned by the entire Charlotte roster. Despite being without Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Tony Parker and Cody Zeller, it would not stop the Hornets from playing fantastic team basketball.
The team’s leading scorer for the night ended up being Dwayne Bacon, who finished the game with twenty points. In this game, Bacon would hit five three-pointers in the third quarter alone.
The Hornets receive more help from their young players, as Miles Bridges scored sixteen points and Devonte Graham was one assist shy from earning him his first career double-double. James Borrego has found the key to success with his younger players playing more.
Kemba Walker would make his impact felt as well, racking up 15 points, 13 assists, and 8 rebounds; this is Walker’s second consecutive game with a double-double. The real story of the game would be the final shot that fell in the closing seconds.
In the closing seconds of the game, Jeremy Lamb would fumble the inbound pass, and turn around to make a halfcourt buzzer-beater to win the game. This has to be one of the best buzzer-beaters in team history.
By the time the Raptors had secured a two-point lead after an exciting fourth quarter comeback, it felt like they were destined to win — if only they could smother Charlotte’s shooters for one more possession. “We couldn’t guard the three-ball all night,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “That was the capper.”
The “capper” in this case was an absurd, high-arching, buzzer-beating, banked-in, mid-court heave from the Hornet’s Jeremy Lamb. With 3.1 seconds left, and the Raptors leading by two, things had firmly turned against Charlotte. Even after the ball was inbounded, Pascal Siakam managed to poke it away, driving Lamb past mid-court. Everything was in place for a shot made in pure desperation, an attempt without hope. And yet, well, here:
It’s hard to get too mad about this play, really. The Raptors didn’t make any mistakes in their defense, and were in a good position to win this game — despite their earlier sluggish efforts. In isolation you just have to laugh about it, shake your head, and move on. Still, we have to consider the full 48 minutes here, and in that analysis it’s a little easier to get annoyed with Toronto.
Much like their Friday contest against the Thunder, the Raptors were once again behind in their shot attempts (93 to 77), and couldn’t do enough to corral loose balls, be they offensive rebounds (they gave up 14) or turnovers (13). Those are the kind of numbers that suggest a lack of effort on the part of the Raptors. It’s also how Charlotte can end up shooting 44 percent from three on 41 attempts, including lines of 5-of-8 from Dwayne Bacon and 3-of-4 from Lamb. And it’s how the Hornets can survive a 3-of-17 night from the field by their best player, Kemba Walker.
In what’s becoming a theme of late, the Raptors were led by Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, who scored 28 and 23 points, respectively. Much like on Friday night, Leonard only made his presence truly felt in fits and starts, but he still shot 10-of-18 from the field, grabbed nine boards, dished three assists, and added two blocks — including one late that preserved the lead he’d just given the Raptors seconds earlier on a jumper in the lane. Siakam’s tally came in more minutes (36 to 33) but on fewer shots (he was 9-of-14); Pascal also added seven rebounds and five assists, and, like Kawhi, cranked up the defense when the team absolutely needed it. (Of concern though: Siakam’s five turnovers. That’s 12 in two games, which is not a positive trend for the young forward.)
Playing with their plausible crunch-time small-ball lineup of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green, the Raptors were able to eventually claw back into this one. Green had a quiet offensive night (just two points), but FVV continued his strong run of play with 12 points, five rebounds, and three assists. Lowry, meanwhile, is not at 100 percent — he admitted as much after the game — but was able to put in seven points while dishing six assists. Here’s hoping Lowry, who also admitted he wants to play through his latest injury, can regain the form he had just a couple weeks ago.
Powell’s late-game surge is only a marginally important thing in a marginally important loss. But it does give Nurse something to ponder over the coming weeks, as he shrinks his rotations and figures out who he’ll be leaning on come the playoffs. The fact Powell is capable of that zero-to-100 performance, as he’s now proven on numerous occasions, has to be rattling around Nurse’s frontal lobe in late April, when he ultimately encounters a playoff situation in which he needs a spark. When the carefully laid plans go to hell. When he just wants to shake things up.
He’s been doing it most of the season, really. Sunday was an extremely rare occasion in which the Raptors did not list an inactive regular. The team’s full arsenal was at Nurse’s disposal, which is why he mixed and matched with so many different lineups throughout the night, and ended up giving 10 players 11 minutes or more of run.
The return of Kyle Lowry facilitated it. After missing four of Toronto’s last five games with injuries to each of his ankles, Lowry was back on the floor doing his thing, barking out orders, slinging the ball around, absorbing his team-leading 22nd charge of the season. He didn’t look his best, and probably shouldn’t have been expected to, considering he’s feeling far from it.
“It’s not going to be 100 per cent the whole season, I can say that right now,” Lowry said after the game. “I just want to get out there. I could sit out until the playoffs with the type of injury that I have. But I want to play, keep a rhythm, and get out there with the guys and play some basketball. If I can get out there and play, I’m gonna go play. It could take me a while for this one to really heal, but you don’t want that. It’s going to take too long. So, I’ll just get out there and go play. And deal with it as it goes.”
Well, that’s certainly something to monitor. The returns are at least better from fellow point guard Fred VanVleet, who also recently suffered an injury absence, but looks even better now than he did prior.
Allowing Extra Opportunities
The difference in the intensity between the two teams was evident in what is often dubbed as the “hustle stats”.
Charlotte, who is a team that is fighting for its playoff life, played a group of young and hungry players that included the likes of Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham – all of whom are in their first or second season in the league.
The Hornets adopted a scrappy identity Sunday night, and it showed in the box score – the team attempted 16 more shots than the Raptors as a direct result of the 14 offensive rebounds they grabbed on the night. Charlotte converted its offensive boards into 20 second-chance points; Toronto grabbed just three offensive boards.
In addition to allowing more Hornets opportunities, the Raptors limited their own. In the first half alone, Toronto turned the ball over 10 times and Charotte took full advantage, scoring 14 points off of the turnovers.
The Raptors cleaned things up in the second half, committing just three turnovers, but the damage was done. After committing 21 turnovers against OKC Friday and 10 in the first half Sunday, taking care of the ball will be a point of emphasis for this team moving forward.
In the five games he has been back, VanVleet has been on one of his best runs of the season, averaging 14.6 points and 6.0 assists per game, shooting 11-for-24 from three-point range and averaging more than 33 minutes per night. Three of those games were starts in the absence of Kyle Lowry, who was out with a sprained ankle.
In his first 51 games, VanVleet had averaged 10.3 points and 4.5 assists while shooing 36.6 per cent from three-point range and averaging about 27 minutes a game.
His ascendant play has impressed coach Nick Nurse.
“He’s physically feeling good, and that’s maybe for the first time all year, really,” Nurse said. “He’s just kind of back to the guy we remember from a year ago a little bit more. It really gives us a weapon. He’s tough, he’s smart, he shoots, he’ll get that odd layup here and there when the shot clock’s running down, and he’ll make that shot-clock basket in the fourth quarter, it seems like.”
VanVleet said the time off helped get him right and wonders if taking more time to let early-season injuries get better might not have been smarter.
“I think the smart thing would have probably been to take a more cautious approach with my back and the other injuries that I have, but you try to play through those things as a professional,” he said early this month. “I’m not special.
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