If you were still feeling the high of last night's NCAA Championship game and needed to take a night off from hoops to calm down, you made a solid decision. Toronto's 96-90 win over the Hornets Tuesday night was never really in doubt - despite a fourth quarter rampage Charlotte rampage - and was never all that entertaining, either.
The Raptors were simply the better of two teams that were out of sorts.
Charlotte had a legitimate excuse for being off-kilter. Nic Batum missed the game with a knee injury, and as it turns out, having your offensive catalyst and best wing defender available is important. The former Blazer's glue guy has been outstanding in his first season with the Hornets, elevating the play of everybody he shares the floor with - most notably Kemba Walker, who has enjoyed a career season while being asked to initiate the offense less when paired with the French forward.
Kemba w/ Batum: 792 MP / 29.6 USG / 39.8 FG% / 51.4 TS%— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) April 5, 2016
Kemba w/o Batum: 1904 MP / 25.3 USG / 44.2 FG% / 56.8 TS%
Batum seems important.
Walker stuck to his tendency of shooting poorly without Batum complementing him on the court. He posted a terribly inefficient 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting and went just 1-for-8 from three-point range; Charlotte as a team shot just 36.4 percent on the night without Batum massaging the flow with his offensive creativity.
"Early in the game, especially, everything was a jump shot. We didn't get the ball going to the basket much at all. Second quarter, fourth quarter, our offense was pretty good. First and third it was really bad," said Charlotte coach Steve Clifford.
Batum's absence was felt on the defensive end as well. Down their only dependable wing defender, Charlotte had no hope of stopping DeMar DeRozan. He too struggled with his shot, going just 7-for-19, but he was a force of nature when attacking the basket. His 11 makes on 12 trips to the line provided the Raptors with some much-needed easy offense in a game where clanked three-pointers were front and center.
Jonas Valanciunas extended his streak of stand-out performances with a grimy 12-point, 12-rebound, three-block effort. Even more encouraging than the numbers were the numerous times DeRozan and Kyle Lowry seemed to look for Valanciunas within the flow of the offense, rather than force feeding him the ball for clunky post ups.
I feel like the Raptor guards have been looking for JV in the pick and roll a little more.— Hindi Crawford (@IamHarshDave) April 6, 2016
JV's utilized in that situation the least of all the bigs, but he's at 1.27 PPP, which is in the 92nd percentile.— Hindi Crawford (@IamHarshDave) April 6, 2016
By virtue of his enormity, Valanciunas has always been a dangerous roller. Against teams that are lighter in the front court in the playoffs (ie/ Indiana, Boston, Atlanta or Charlotte), Valanciunas could be absolutely overpowering.
"He really has improved in reading the speed of the game, whether it is slow or fast, mainly in the pick and roll situations," said Dwane Casey, who also complimented Valanciunas' improved ability to pass out of the post.
Another encouraging development: Lowry's shot fell on Tuesday night, especially in the fourth quarter. On the night he put up 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting to go along with six assists and four boards. A dozen of those points came during a crucial stretch of the fourth where the Hornets cut into the Raptors one-time 16-point lead and made the game seem a lot closer than it actually was. Yes, it would be nice if Lowry hadn't been forced into another 40-minute outing by the Raptors inability to sustain it's wide advantage, but there are mercifully some games against utterly horrible opponents lurking between now and season's end where Lowry can catch his breath.
Soon the urge to fret over minutes totals and rest will dissipate. We're now just five games away from the playoffs. And if tonight's slog against Charlotte is any indication of what the rest of this season's largely meaningless games are going to look like, April 16th can't come soon enough.
What do you think of tonight's game?