On a list of things I'd like to do, playing a professional basketball game on New Year's Day, even after the sun had set, would be near the bottom. But the Raptors, god bless'em, will be up tonight to welcome the Charlotte Hornets to the ACC. I'm sure everyone will be excited to be involved.
The Hornets will never not be a strangely compelling team. They're owned by Michael Jordan (of crying meme fame), they've had runs of truly bad play (now forgotten thanks to even worse sustained play by the Sixers), and have hosted some of the more memorable players in the league (Lance Stephenson what's up!). They're currently 17-14 which, amazingly, puts them outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, as opposed to, like, third, if this had been last year. They also prominently feature this guy.
The Raptors meanwhile are finally at full strength, with the twin returns of Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll. The only conclusion we've been able to draw about this team is that they can be very good and also very frustrating. They can find weird ways to win and odd ways to lose. They can enter 2016 with a 20-13 record and be both 2.5 games out of first and 1.5 games out of eighth. Cue the confused shoulder shrug.
Here are your three things to watch for in the game:
These are not your grand mama's Hornets. After a few years of being one of the truly worst offensive teams in recent memory, this version of the Hornets are currently sixth in the league in offensive rating (103.8). While they're firmly middle of the pack in terms of field goal and three point percentage, the Hornets are third in three point attempts (behind only the Rockets and the Warriors). And they even just squeeze into the top ten in true shooting percentage (54.1 percent), which has to feel nice for them. They'll get out there and fire away, is my point.
Not to overlooked though is the Hornets 11th ranked defense. They haven't completely shed the identity they had in those offensively lean years, the seasons when they had to grind out wins purely by wearing the other team out. That version of the Hornets is still hanging around. So watch out.
Go Big or Go Home?
On the flipside of all this newly discovered shooting range is the old Hornets identity, the one driven by the retro post stylings of Al Jefferson. He's hurt, by the way, having gone down with a torn meniscus just a couple of days ago. He's also, at 31, clearly in decline. That's got the Hornets in a position to run with a new crew of big men -- namely Cody Zeller, Spencer Hawes, Marvin Williams, and yes, Frank Kaminsky. It's not nothing.
For the Raptors, the newly returned Jonas Valanciunas, still shaking off the rust, should look to take advantage of this lineup in the post. Bismack Biyombo, destroyer of worlds, should look to exploit the hole he left behind on his former team. That's the big news. The wrinkle here for Toronto will be the combinations of small ball lineups they'll have to run to counter the Hornets new found speed and attack. Against the Wizards, Toronto ran out lineups featuring Lowry, Joseph, Ross and DeRozan. What kind of combos will we see when Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb and Marvin Williams are out there flying around?
The New Normal for DeMar DeRozan
Not sure DeRozan has ever had an extended stretch as good as these last 10-15 games. Great all-around play. Attacking the rim like crazy.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 31, 2015
How much longer does it last? Can it last? How much of this is the new normal for DeRozan? Where is this all leading? This is the most compelling storyline for the Raptors. Every game, a new referendum for the team and its longest tenured player.
One final note: Tonight is Asian Heritage Night, cannily planned for the appearance of Jeremy Lin. Unfortunately, Lin is questionable for the game while he deals with an ankle injury. Fortunately, this means he won't inevitably kill the Raptors with a backbreaking three. Happy 2016 everyone!
Where to Watch: TSN, 7:30pm EST