You'll have to forgive the Toronto Raptors if they're looking forward to seeing 2015 winding down. A road-heavy early season schedule has not made things easy for the club, but the Raps have done well to sit at 16-10 heading into Thursday's road tilt with the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena. Toronto suffered a serious case of the Mondays in its last contest against the Indiana Pacers, squandering a 21-point first quarter lead and allowing Indy to go on a devastating 22-0 run of their own en route to a forgettable 106-90 loss in Indiana.
The Hornets (14-10) have been sneakily good so far in the 2015-16 NBA campaign. Charlotte is one of just five teams in the league ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency and have established themselves as a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference for the first time in recent memory.
The addition of Nicolas Batum has done wonders for the team, as the Frenchman is averaging 17 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while fitting in seamlessly to head coach Steve Clifford's system. Combined with key contributions from Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Jeremy Lin, the Hornets all of a sudden have a formidable offensive unit that looks nothing like last year's squad that ranked last in the league in three-point shooting. Maybe Lance Stephenson (who's now causing headaches for Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers) was the problem after all.
Here are three things to watch for in this game:
1) Battle of the Benches
The Hornets have one of the deepest benches in the Association, which could present some matchup issues for the Dinos. The newly acquired Lamb and Lin have done a phenomenal job carrying the second unit, but the play from veteran big man Spencer Hawes and rookie Frank Kaminsky shouldn't be overlooked either. The Raptors, meanwhile, have been far from the model of consistency outside of their starting five (excluding the ever steady Cory Joseph, of course). Injuries to Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll have left the door wide open for lesser-used players to prove themselves, but Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and James Johnson have struggled to string together solid performances in their absence.
2) Neck and Neck Action
Perhaps it's a result of two franchises who have suffered through a lot of mediocre basketball throughout the years, but the Raps and Hornets have a history of playing some tight games in "Buzz City." Six of the last seven meetings between the teams in Charlotte have been resulted by six points or less, including a 92-87 win by the Dinos last April. Considering neither side has been blowing opponents out of the water on a regular basis this year, we should be in for yet another tight battle between the evenly matched teams.
3) Home Cooking
The friendly confines of Time Warner Cable Arena have been good to the Hornets thus far. As of Wednesday, Charlotte was tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors for the most home wins in the league at 10. A fan base that's been starving for a winner has responded to the early success of the 2015-16 Hornets, as the arena has become one of the noisiest in the NBA throughout the quarter mark of the season. Fortunately, Toronto is accustomed to playing outside of Canada and owns a respectable 8-6 road record in its first 14 contests away from home.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7pm EST