With Kyle Lowry returning to the lineup following his ankle injury on Monday night, the Raptors had their full rotation for the first time since November, and the first appearance of the post-trade deadline Raptors in whole as the desperate Charlotte Hornets came to town. With Charlotte battling to try to claim the final seed in the Eastern Conference and the Raptors having the second seed well at hand, the game clearly meant different things to each of the two teams as well in this one.
The Raptors started Marc Gasol for the fifth straight game, and the starting lineup got off to a quick start, with solid playmaking setting up easy shots at the offensive end that allowed the Raptors to jump out to a solid lead in the first quarter. As the bench came in, however, old trends came back into play as the Hornets brought the lead back to just five at the first quarter break, with Charlotte capitalizing on offensive rebounds and Raptors turnovers to counter the Raptors’ hot shooting.
In the second and third quarters Charlotte was able to build and maintain a lead off the Raptors’ lackluster energy and some hot outside shooting from Jeremy Lamb and Dwayne Bacon, but the Raptors came storming back in the fourth, led by some solid defense with Pascal Siakam at center and with Kawhi Leonard providing the scoring punch. Norman Powell also gave the Raptors some great second half minutes, and the Raptors finished the night with a torrid 68.9% true shooting, but never really managed to establish any presence on the offensive boards while also not forcing many turnovers from Charlotte leading to the Hornets maintaining their possession advantage throughout the game, which led to the tense final minutes.
With Charlotte holding a two-point lead off a Bacon layup, Kawhi was able to draw a foul and knock down two free throws to tie things up, and then Danny Green notched a block on a Jeremy Lamp layup and the Raptors were able to maintain possession after a Danny Green missed three-point attempt. At that point, Kawhi went to work again, hitting a tough 18-foot jumper to give the Raptors a slim two-point advantage. Kawhi then blocked an interior attempt from Kemba Walker, but wasn’t able to convert a jumper at the other end, giving the Hornets back possession with just 5.8 seconds remaining. Fred VanVleet used the Raptors’ last remaining foul to take the clock down further, giving the Hornets just 3.1 seconds to get a final shot off. Pascal Siakam guarded Jeremy Lamb on the inbounds and disrupted the initial pass, forcing Lamb to retreat to the Hornets’ side of halfcourt where he grabbed the ball with just enough time to turn and hoist a 48-foot jumper over Pascal’s outstretched arms, which he managed to bank in to give Charlotte the win.
It was a bizarre way to lose a game, and certainly not one anyone would’ve predicted, but the Raptors didn’t really lose it at the end, either. They failed to show the effort they needed to for most of the game, and the bench lineups that Nurse kept going back struggled once again, leading the Raptors to need late heroics in order to stand a chance. While the games mostly don’t matter at this point in the season for Toronto, they do need to win a few of their remaining games to remain the second seed, and with a now healthy rotation need to find their chemistry so they can develop into the team they’ll need to be for a long playoff run. Still, with the starting lineup having looked dominant again in this game, the signs are there that the Raptors will find a way to be that team, and there is a lot to build on if they can tighten the playoff rotation and bring a better energy level.