As an indicator of the rest of the night, the Raptors’ first quarters are instructive. If they come out with energy and are sharp in their execution, they can win many a game. Against the Hornets, entering Toronto having lost back-to-back games their best player in Kemba Walker, a strong start could be enough to get the job done.
That is, of course, if we were to discount Toronto’s third quarters. You see, despite an early lead after a relatively crisp first quarter, one that ballooned up to 19 points in the second quarter behind some superlative play from Kyle Lowry, we could not relax. Not entirely. The Raptors would eventually beat the Hornets 126-113, but not before giving up 17 of those 19 points in the third and allowing Charlotte a glimmer of hope.
“I don’t have words,” said coach Dwane Casey in a curt post-game conference. “The way you come out and let a team go nine straight points to start the quarter. That’s totally unacceptable. We’re not going to win anything if we come out with that attitude, if we don’t fix it.
But then, what to do? As remarked upon pre-game, the Raptors have tried mixing their lineup around (swapping Pascal Siakam’s energy in for Jonas Valanciunas’ lead feet, for example), they’ve tried to change up their halftime locker room prep work, and yet they still haven’t figured out why their net rating plummets them to 23rd in the league. (Raptors net ranking for second and fourth quarters: 1st and 5th, respectively.)
“Shit, if I had it, I would have given the answer to that already,” said Fred VanVleet. “It's just something we've gotta figure out as a team.” VanVleet has rarely been the problem for the Raptors during this weird struggle. He had another strong game tonight with eight points and a career-high nine assists, and has filled in admirably for the injured Delon Wright. Against a large Hornets backcourt he did not look overwhelmed.
Likewise for his team’s leader Lowry, who shot the Raptors out of their funk in the third. He finished with an awesome 36 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 8-of-11 from three, which just so happens to be a new career-high in made threes. Lowry seemed to acknowledge just how unconscious he was throughout: “To be honest, I did not even know. I was just trying to make shots.” That’s the way to do it.
Not to be outpaced by his running mate, DeMar DeRozan also got in on the act, finishing with 30 points on 14-of-22 shooting, four rebounds, and six assists. It was his thunderous dunk in the fourth that felt like the final nail in the Hornets’ insufferable hive. When you stack that trio of backcourt numbers up it’s easy to see why the Raptors would eventually go on to win the game.
Which makes that third quarter — and the team’s run of third quarters in the past week (Atlanta excepted, to be fair) — all the more inexplicable. While the Hornets took turns being effective — powered by Dwight Howard’s 22-10 line, Frank Kaminsky’s 18 killer points off the bench, and some spirited play from Jeremy Lamb — it was really the Raptors who kept letting them back in the game. Toronto led the entire way, and it never really felt like they’d lose — not with Lowry looking to kill. But a 19-2 run third quarter run for the Hornets shrunk the Raps’ lead to a mere two points anyway.
It’s what had coach Casey so steamed afterwards, dismissive even of Lowry’s fantastic performance. “Great. Great. That’s great,” Casey said of Lowry’s game. “You’re not going to out-shoot people to win in this league. Those things, we just had too many bonehead things.” It comes as no surprise that, according to DeRozan, Casey told the Open Gym crew to turn the cameras off in the post-game locker room.
So what else can be said? Serge Ibaka had a fast start and then faded down the stretch (mostly after getting crowned twice by Howard). Valanciunas had 12 points and seven rebounds and didn’t look particularly overmatched. The rest of the bench chipped in in their way. And only rookie OG Anunoby went scoreless.
Maybe it’s all nothing, maybe the Raptors will blow a team away in the third quarter — on Friday night? After the weekend? Before Christmas? It could happen at any time. The Raptors are still built for the long haul, and they still have some supremely talented (and consistent!) basketball players — despite the appearance of “bonehead things.” Casey getting this upset maybe means the whole squad may just snap out of it tomorrow. In the mean time, hey, the Raptors won another game!