Raptors-Hornets react pod https://t.co/7fLszAxDyM
— William Lou (@william_lou) January 11, 2023
Passes Kyle Lowry for the most 25/5/5 games as a Raptor. pic.twitter.com/g9YrwRXhVk
— StatMuse (@statmuse) January 11, 2023
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 11, 2023
Since Dec. 9, Gary Trent Jr. is shooting 42.9% from three.
Since Dec. 19 (return from injury), O.G. Anunoby is shooting 43.1% from three.
Hopefully knocking down a few big ones late in two straight games is the start of something for Fred VanVleet with the stroke.
— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) January 11, 2023
10. The Raptors should look to switch more liberally in the rematch on Thursday. You wouldn’t know it from this game, but the Hornets were the worst-ranked offence in the league and yet Toronto conceded 120 points on 55 per cent shooting. The main issue was that Ball was too clever for Toronto’s traps and blitzes, as he made the quick pass out and on time to set up shooters. Otherwise, Ball was getting downhill at will to spin his magic. Switching will allow the Raptors to keep Ball out of the paint, and while there might be mismatches down low, the Hornets don’t really have a lethal big who can reliably score even with an advantage. Even Mason Plumlee, who lived in the paint for 9-of-10 shooting, did so largely attacking on the move after Ball drew two defenders.
With their 132-120 win on Tuesday night over Charlotte, the Raptors have reached the halfway point. By any measure, it was a disappointing first half for the Raptors, who are going to face a complicated decision at the trade deadline regardless of how the next month plays out.
With that in mind, here is my annual mid-season report card. A reminder: If someone is meeting expectations, I generally grade them in the B-minus/C-plus range, although slightly more credit is given to them if they have a large role. (Likewise, I might be a bit harsher if their role is crucial, too.)
“It’s gonna take some better individual play from a lot of guys,” coach Nick Nurse said before the team moved to 18-23. “A lot of the focus is on the main guys and all that stuff. But a lot of guys need to only get back to where they were. They’re supposed to be getting better. Some guys have been out. Some guys have been out for a long time. Some guys’ rhythm has changed with the lineup changing quite a bit. That’s affecting them. Some guys play really good in the long stretches but can’t handle the short stretches. There are a lot of things that need to come together individually and there are a lot of things that need to come together as a team.”
They officially crossed the halfway with their 132-120 win over the visiting Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday. It was close most of the way and was a one-point game until midway through the fourth quarter when Toronto ripped off a 14-0 run that featured two threes from O.G. Anunoby and two more from Fred VanVleet, sandwiched around a score by Pascal Siakam that put the Raptors up 15 with three minutes to play.
It was Toronto’s second straight win and improved their record to 18-23 with 41 games down and 41 left to play. The Hornets fell to 11-31.
Toronto was led by Pascal Siakam – their first-half MVP – who finished with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby added 24 and 22 points each. Terry Rozier had 33 for the visitors while LaMelo Ball had 24 points and 14 assists.
The Raptors perfectly executed the formula they have been sticking to all season: they won the offensive rebounds battle (18-6); the turnover category (11-10) and took more shots than their opponents (91-86). But the swing stat was their season-high 20 made threes (on 44 attempts), an element that has been missing for the league’s worst three-point shooting team.
Also true to form? The league’s worst offense (and second-worst three-point shooting team) shot 54.7 per cent against the Raptors and was 15-of-35 from deep.
Toronto will start their second half hosting Charlotte on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena in the second half of their two-game mini-series.
It’s the kind of schedule break the Raptors have been desperate for. In addition to being last in offense, the Hornets came 26th in defense and tied for second-to-last in wins. They weren’t intending to be a draft lottery team after winning 43 games last season, but injuries to LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, plus legal problems for Miles Bridges, have the Hornets in prime position to be earn a top draft pick, though with their woeful draft history who knows what they’ll do with it.
So, if Toronto takes care of business – keeping in mind they have yet to sweep a two-game series this season – they should start the second half of the season with at least the hint of some momentum.
But what to make of it all?
The Raptors first half was so disappointing and frustrating that what should be a soft spot in a difficult schedule may not be an opportunity but a trap.
Two wins against the lottery-bound Hornets could make it that much more difficult for the Raptors to get in on the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, as team across the bottom quarter of the league jockey to be in position to draft the 7-foot-4 French phenom.
With contract crunches coming in some shape or form for everyone at the top of the Raptors rotation, the over-arching decision for those in charge will be how much to invest in a team whose upside is so hard to see from here right now.
Is it time to buy, sell, stand pat?
After all, Toronto is as close to finishing with a bottom-four record – and the lottery odds that come with it – as they are of moving up the standings and finishing sixth, earning the final playoff spot that comes with it.
The Hornets got 3-pointers from Ball and PJ Washington to start the second, but the Raptors answered with back to back 3-pointers from Precious Achiuwa, who came into the game 5-of-34 from three on the season. The back and forth gave way to a Raptors run that was broken only by a couple of PJ Washington push shots. The run pushed the Raptors lead to eight at the 4:28 mark of the second quarter and forced a Hornets timeout. The Hornets answered the run but couldn’t get stops on Pascal Siakam. At the half, the Hornets trailed 72-66. The teams combined to shoot 56.3% from the field in the first half.
The Hornets guards each made a pair of high difficulty shots to start the Hornets second half scoring. Ball found Mason Plumlee for his tenth assist and Plumlee’s seventh consecutive made shot a few possessions later. Terry Rozier hit several difficult shots as the quarter went on, and five straight points from JT Thor finally tied the game. Cody Martin gave the Hornets a lead with a step through right at the one minute mark of the third, but the Raptors answered with four straight to take a two point lead into the fourth quarter.
The teams yo-yoed runs through the first few minutes of the fourth quarter with the Raptors building their lead, the Hornets erasing it, and the Raptors building back. Jalen McDaniels and Plumlee were responsible for the Hornets’ counterpunches. The Hornets had a chance to take a lead with just over six minutes to play, but both of their 3-point attempts drew iron. OG Anunoby hit back to back three from the corner then Fred VanVleet hit from the top of the key for nine straight Raptors points. The run grew to 14 straight points before the Hornets finally got a bucket from Rozier. The Hornets couldn’t stop the bleeding and an Anunoby slam served as the dagger with just under a minute to go.
The Hornets played well for about 42 minutes, but that last six minutes did them in. The defense wasn’t as terrible as the score would suggest—the Raptors just made shots and got to the free throw line.
Mason Plumlee added 21 points and only missed one shot from the field.
The Hornets will hang out in Toronto to prepare for the rematch on Thursday.
As a team, Toronto shot 49.5% from the field and 45.5% from three, making those aforementioned 20 threes on 44 attempts.
So, who got hot from the outside? Let’s start with OG Anunoby.
Drilling six threes on seven attempts, including back to back triples in the fourth to stretch a one-point Raptors lead to seven, Anunoby had 22 points and continued a shooting resurgence that’s been coming on since he returned from a finger injury on December 19. OG has now shot 40% or better from distance in six of his last 11 games.
Gary Trent Jr. was no slouch tonight either. A subject of trade talks all week, Trent Jr. continued to show why he’d be a valuable fit for the Raptors in the short and long-term future. Making 4-for-10 from distance, Trent Jr. had a timely three in the third quarter to stonewall a 7-0 Hornets run — part of his 24 points on the night.
Terry Rozier shot a torrid 14-for-19 for 33 points to lead the Hornets, who fall to 11-30 on the year, while LaMelo Ball had a 24 points on 22 shots, 14 assists and four rebounds.
Tuesday’s game opened at an incredible offensive pace, considering these are two of the worst teams in the NBA on that end of the floor. After the Raptors made their first two threes, the Hornets made nine of their first ten shots. After Pascal Siakam dropped ten points, the Hornets forced six turnovers and kept their field goal percentage above 65%. A back-and-forth first ended with the Raptors up one, but the game really got interesting once Toronto’s bench started trickling in.
With a huge frontcourt of Christian Koloko, Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa starting the second, the Raptors put a different look in front of the Hornets. Even though the lineup was anemic offensively, they held their own for six quality minutes while Toronto’s starters rested. This +4 stretch was critical, and included back to back Achiuwa threes, who is finally showing flashes of his old form.
After some nifty passing and scoring (and a huge dunk for emphasis) from Scottie Barnes helped maintain a Raptors lead out of halftime, the second unit once again held court. Trent Jr. and his very large friends made life chaotic for the Hornets, even as their starters returned to the floor.
Boucher and Achiuwa, who combined for 25 points in a throwback to 2021-22, were able to play good enough defense and allow more rest for the starters — who haven’t had this much time with towels on their head in a while.
The confluence of events:
Stops and starters
The Raptors entered Tuesday having used 18 starting lineups this season, behind only the Los Angeles Lakers (22) and Oklahoma City (19) in the NBA.
Not only has that not allowed for any measure of continuity, it has forced players into spots they may not be entirely familiar with. Guards turn into forwards, forwards have to switch between wing-oriented or interior defenders. Even if someone starts eight games in a row, there might be six different assignments in that period.
Nurse seems to have stuck on a group of Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. Barring injury or a coming trade, that should create a sense of normalcy.
The Raptors expected organic improvement from a couple of their key players and have not yet gotten it. For two very different reasons.
Scottie Barnes, the current NBA rookie of the year, hasn’t been bad by any stretch but he hasn’t been better than his first season in any significant way. He has been too passive with the ball on offence, his defence has been no better than it was a year ago, and his statistics have flatlined. There’s no reason to think he won’t get better because of his prolific skills but he hasn’t yet, and that was a major factor in the first-half failings.
Precious Achiuwa, who flourished in the second half of last season, missed 24 games with ligament damage in his ankle and that has set his development back greatly. Achiuwa needs to work himself back into game shape and regain the self-confidence that was so abundant last year. It’s vital to Toronto’s success.
Bench sob, not Bench Mob
In part because so many backups were forced into starting roles, in part because of up-and-down performances, in part because Nurse has to figure out how to win each night, the Raptors’ bench was a major downfall in the first half of the season.
There have been good performances in one game followed by two or three bad ones; Otto Porter Jr., whose season is now over thanks to foot surgery, never panned out, which made the lack of bench shooting even more glaring.
So every night, the coach searches.
“It’s not like they’re going out there and we’re like, ‘You’ve got two minutes or else,’” Nurse said this week. “It isn’t the case at all. I just think when something happens, like a major run, you’ve got to react to it as a coach. I don’t want it to be 90 seconds or two minutes or whatever. Not at all.
“In certain circumstances, you’ve got to react to it.”
Those interconnected circumstances, one piling on top of another and then another, have the Raptors reaching the midway point of the season as one of the great NBA disappointments.
“We are who we are,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said as his team reached the midway point of the season Tuesday with a 132-120 victory over the Charlotte Hornets
The first half of the season didn’t go as anyone would have hoped. For a team with playoff expectations, Toronto’s 18-23 first half was about as disappointing as it could get. Yes, the injuries have been plentiful, but it’s been the lack of development almost across the board that’s been the most concerning. Save for Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby, nobody has taken a step forward this season.
“It’s gonna take some better individual play from a lot of guys,” Nurse continued. “A lot of the focus is on the main guys and all that stuff, but a lot of guys need to not only get back to where they were. They’re supposed to be getting better.”
Those secondary players that Nurse was talking about finally stepped up against Charlotte. It wasn’t pretty to start. Both Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa looked like, well, they have for most of the season. Achiuwa clanked an off-balanced layup off the top of the backboard trying to split a triple team. Boucher missed his first three-point attempt of the game, an ill-advised jumper.
But then everything clicked. Achiuwa got hot from behind the arc, nailing a trio of three-pointers. Boucher picked off a bad pass from LaMelo Ball and found Achiuwa for a driving dunk in the second quarter.
“It was shaky, but it was aggressive shaky, probably overly aggressive,” Nurse said as his eyes grew wide reflecting back on Achiuwa’s early minutes. “And it’s such a good thing that it turned into a good stint. You can let him play through maybe a couple of not great decisions, a couple of mistakes here and there and it didn’t warrant that I had to make a major shift and then he got going.”
“Just keep it simple,” Fred VanVleet added on Achiuwa. “Coach is very patient with him, so I think it’s good for him and it’ll allow him to grow.”
It was the Achiuwa the Raptors have been missing for so much of this season. There’d be a glimpse of the good play early in the year, albeit surrounded by plenty of struggles, before a severe ankle injury sidelined him for nearly two months.
And while he Raptors defence certainly slipped from the past few games, the offence took a big jump forward, led by regulars Pascal Siakam with 28, Gary Trent Jr. with 24 and OG Anunoby with 22, while being augmented from the bench by Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher.
Neither of the two have been having a ton of success of late, Achiuwa just back from a long-term injury and Boucher struggling to regain his earlier season form.
But two stints, a longer one in the second quarter followed by a shorter one in the fourth, were both primarily successful because of that duo.
Achiuwa finished with 13 points in just 14 minutes while Boucher’s energy was good for 12 points and seven rebounds in just 15 minutes.
Achiuwa seemed relieved just to be having an impact again.
“I’m confident,” Achiuwa said post-game. “I’m confident where I’m at right now. I think I’m getting my rhythm back, which is the most important thing for me. And I think, I believe, for the team as well. I think that second unit coming out there, the guys coming out, we’ve just got to be able to find our rhythm. I think we did today. Chris (Boucher), Malachi (Flynn), I think we did a great job in terms of impacting the game in our own way.”
As a team, the Raptors were good on 20-of-44 attempts from deep, the high-water mark for made threes in a game this year by the club.
“Listen, it’s gonna even itself out one way or another,” VanVleet said after the game of the team’s mostly year-long shooting woes. “You never want to trend too far downward but I thought the last couple of games we’ve been shooting the ball well, other than the Milwaukee game.
“But just keep working the offence and try to create good shots, just more rhythm and energy to the offence and the way we’re sharing the ball now you expect some of those to go down at a higher clip,” he said.
The Raptors did get into their defensive mode in the fourth quarter holding the Hornets to a reasonable 26 points in the final frame after a couple of earlier big quarters by the Hornets to pull away for the win.
The Raptors were recognized for their inclusion program that’s committed to “generating meaningful and long-lasting impact for communities within the city of Toronto.” The program includes initiatives like the Wayne and Theresa Embry Fellowship and the Welcome Toronto Creators Program.
“Inclusion isn’t simply a business pillar for our organization; it is at the centre of everything we do,” John Wiggins, Raptors’ vice-president of organizational culture and inclusion, said Tuesday in a news release.
The Embry Fellowship offers two Canadians first-hand experience in the Raptors basketball operations environment for a season. The Welcome Toronto Creators Program is an incubator that nurtures burgeoning young BIPOC, non-binary or women creators.
The Raptors have also committed to providing at least one of the fellowship spots to a candidate who identifies as part of a marginalized group.
“We recognize the privilege and responsibility that comes with our platform and we continuously strive to use our voice to provide opportunities that unite our community through the power of sport,” Wiggins said.
Finalists for the creator program are given a spotlight at a “Welcome Toronto” game to showcase their stories and art across the team’s social media and are highlighted in-game and during the TV broadcast.