Okay, look, I like the Charlotte Hornets. Kemba Walker is way too good to languish in obscurity. They’ve got a fun bench unit with cool young dudes like Miles Bridges, Malik Monk and Willy Hernangomez. But, I mean, come on. The Hornets? Against these Raptors? Yeah, right.
The Raptors controlled from the opening tip of their 127-106 win over Charlotte tonight. Serge Ibaka won the tap, Kyle Lowry got open, Danny Green delivered the ball, Lowry hit the open three and the Raptors never looked back.
While Lowry drilled his first shot, the Raptors didn’t need him to score at the scorching efficiency he posted in his first three games. Instead Lowry focused on setting up his teammates, posting 14 assists to go along with 16 points for his second consecutive double-double. It was Lowry’s new co-star, Kawhi Leonard, who seemingly could not miss. Leonard was unstoppable, hitting over contests like they weren’t even there. He only had three assists, but there was no reason for Leonard to look to facilitate more than he did, as he was a deadly threat to score whenever he caught the ball. He would finish 9-of-14 from field with 22 points, despite taking only a single shot at the rim.
When Leonard did look to facilitate he often looked for his longtime teammate in San Antonio, Danny Green. Green was on fire as well, hitting 6-of-8 from the floor for 16 points. He also made his impact felt defensively where he had several impressive blocks, including another chase down block in transition.
Speaking of defense, the Raptors found success on the defensive end by zeroing in on Kemba Walker. The Hornets are almost completely reliant on Walker to create offense: through their first three games Walker and Malik Monk were the only Hornets to post an above average usage rate. Walker had hit three pointers at a historic rate through the start of tonight’s game, setting an NBA record with 19 three-point makes in his first three games. The Raptors guards did an excellent job of taking that away from Walker, fighting over screens to contest pull-up threes out of the pick and roll. Walker would manage just 2 three point makes as a result, limiting his efficiency, though he still managed to remain productive by fighting to the rim.
The one question mark for the Raptors remains the bench unit, which is still without Delon Wright. After the Raptors starters built a substantial lead in the first, the bench lost ground throughout the second, before the starters came back in and once again widened the gap, growing the lead to 15 at the half. There were still some nice individual plays and performances from the Raptors bench, as Jonas Valanciunas finished everything on the roll and ended with an extremely efficient 17 point, 10 rebound double-double. Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell did a bit of rookie hazing, as VanVleet crossed the bejesus out of Miles Bridges and Powell threw down over Bridges for a vicious poster.
Ultimately, though, the all-bench lineups struggled, as the bench routinely lost their minutes until Lowry and Leonard were inserted for Powell and Miles. Perhaps Wright’s eventual return solves these issues, or perhaps the Raptors will need to stagger Lowry and Leonard in closer games.
In this game, though, it simply did not matter. The Raptors put the game away early, as they buried the Hornets midway through the third. It happened incredibly quickly, the Hornets looked like they were fighting back: after finding themselves down over 20 part way through the 3rd they had reduced the gap to a fairly manageable 14. Then the Raptors yanked away in a sequence that lasted less than a minute. Leonard nailed a three-point jumper over Nicolas Batum from a standstill. On the next possession, Lowry picked up a steal and hit Leonard on the break for an easy slam. Leonard followed with a steal of his own, resulting in a Pascal Siakam transition score.
This stretch bumped the lead from 14 to 21 and the Hornets would never get back within single digits. Some small struggles from the aforementioned all-bench lineup would necessitate Lowry and Leonard re-entering midway through the fourth, but once they did they quickly cast all hope aside for the Hornets. The bench + All-Stars lineup built the lead back to 20 and garbage time began with four minutes left.
The most notable occurrence in garbage time was Greg Monroe getting his first playing time and basket as a Raptor. Monroe was signed as insurance at the centre position, but Serge Ibaka, who was yet again solid, has quickly adjusted to life as a full time five and as such Nick Nurse hasn’t really had anywhere to fit Monroe in.
And so the Raptors move to 4-0 on the campaign in dominant fashion. They’ll look to move to 5-0 and replicate the best start in franchise history on Wednesday, at home against Timberwolves.