Friday night in Charlotte the Raptors opened with a strong push by their starting lineup, and it initially looked reminiscent of most of the team’s recent games, where they would ride out a dominant offensive performance to another victory. Playing against a desperate Charlotte squad looking to keep their season alive for at least one more night, things got tougher as the game went on.
The Raptors’ starters were once again good in this one, and the lineups where they had Fred VanVleet playing in place of one of the starters also won most of their minutes, but the bench struggled, as has generally been the case this season, and Charlotte took advantage. Kemba Walker had a fantastic performance to lead the way for the home team with 29 points and 8 assists, but Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lamb each contributed 22 as well, and it was Lamb’s fourth quarter performance that ultimately decided the game. This time it wasn’t a halfcourt circus shot, like the one he hit in Toronto on March 24th, but an open corner three-pointer after the Raptors had taken a slim lead on a Kawhi Leonard layup to give the Raptors just three seconds to equalize or take the lead.
The last playcall for the Raptors was to go once again to Kawhi, and he wedgied the shot, leading to a jump ball that drove out the remaining time. But it wasn’t really the crunch time that decided this game. The Raptors won the 36 minutes that Kyle Lowry played by a significant margin, with Lowry finishing the night at a +15, but they couldn’t find answers for a bench that has had a rough season, and that’s a storyline that the team will hope to leave behind when the regular season ends.
Really though, this game showed the difference between a Charlotte team that desperately needed a win, with them needing to win out the remainder of their schedule, and get a little help as well, in order to have any hopes of a postseason bid, and a Raptors team that’s just going through the motions. The games aren’t entirely meaningless, with home court advantage in a potential NBA Finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors still up in the air, but Toronto has to get to the Finals before that is even an issue, and that still feels a long way off at this point in time.
For the time being, Nick Nurse seems content to trust his bench for a significant number of minutes while he continues to search for answers to spell the starters some rest. Chances are, the way things have been going, that Toronto will simply have to run an 8 or 9 man rotation in the playoffs and stagger starters, rather than running full bench lineups, but with little consequences right now, it’s easy to wait for the playoffs before making that move.
The Raptors in all likelihood got everything they wanted out of this game though, with strong minutes from their starters, kept their offensive rhythm for the most part, and left with a healthy rotation, which is the key to their playoff run. Sunday with the Miami Heat in town will be a similar story, facing a hungry team trying to keep their hopes alive, and the Raptors will have to once again try to match that effort, but the outcome will be largely inconsequential for them once again.