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Raptors look to continue winning ways vs. the Hornets: Preview, start time, and more

With a chance to win five straight, the Raptors face a Hornets team fighting for playoff contention

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Another Sunday matinee? Yep. The Raptors have their second early start in as many weeks, visiting the Hornets on the road.

The Hornets have been in the rumour mill lately, as the Cleveland Cavaliers reportedly reached out in hopes to acquire Kemba Walker. But the deadline came and went with the Hornets making only one minor transaction, acquiring Willy Hernangomez from the Knicks. The 6’11” Spaniard should be available to play to tonight, although he might be pressed for playing time as the team is already deep in big men.

Keeping Charlotte’s core intact can be seen as a positive for the Raptors, who have had little trouble with Charlotte, winning both matchups, and most recently blowing them out by 18 points in a game where OG Anunoby caught fire, hitting 6-of-7 from deep.

Yet, Charlotte is still playing for something as their playoff hopes dwindle. As it currently stands, they are five and half games out of the 8th seed, with 27 games left to play. Making the playoffs proves to be a tough task, but not one without hope. Nicolas Batum is starting to play better after coming back from injury, and Kemba Walker is on a ridiculous hot streak. Despite this, they’ve lost three in a row, and will surely be chomping at the bit as they return home from a four game road trip.

Meanwhile, the Raptors are demolishing everyone in their path, blowing out each of their past four opponents by 15 points or more. The team is riding a positive wave, summed up by Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam sharing their bromance to the world in Thursday’s post-game interview following the Raptors’ victory over the Knicks. Yak & Skills forever.

A five game winning streak is entirely possible today, unless of course, there is a rain delay, which happens sometimes, but surprisingly, never happens to the number one seed in the east. So we’re good, it’s just something for the Boston Celtics to watch out for.

Here are your details for today’s game.

Where to Watch

TSN 4/5, 1pm EST

Lineups

Toronto - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

Charlotte - Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard

Injuries

Toronto - Malachi Richardson (day-to-day)

Charlotte - none

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No ‘Dwightmares’ Please

If you took a glance at Dwight Howard’s statistics, you would likely be impressed by 15.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks. But many Charlotte fans are dissatisfied with Howard’s effort, claiming that his stats are “empty.” His activity level is low, and he is starting to grow a collection of laughable defensive plays.

One play in Friday’s loss to the Utah Jazz particularly stood out. As the Hornets started a fast break from a steal at the free throw line, the team busted out of the gates. As the camera moved with the action, you could see a walking Howard fall out of the picture. The break later slowed up as Kemba missed a layup with 16 seconds left on the shot clock. The Jazz rebounded and took it the other way on their own fast break. As the camera turned to follow the action, we see Howard, who had not even crossed half court (!), let Joe Ingles run right by him for the layup. Essentially, Howard walked to halfcourt, put it in park, and let two offensive possessions float right by him — yikes.

Even with his defensive effort trending in the wrong direction, Howard still presents a challenge. In two games against the Raptors, he is averaging 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and about one nasty dunk on Jakob Poeltl per game. Most importantly though, it was clear his impact drove team success. Howard typically plays well against the Raptors and, who knows, playing an east contender might be the boost he needs.

Starters Finding Rhythm

The Raptors are fun right now. The bench is rolling, and fans are enjoying buyout discussions typically reserved for contenders only — Vince Carter, anyone? Although, the slumping starting unit slipped through the cracks this week. The starting lineup posted an 86.8 offensive rating in 54 minutes over the last three games — the lowest mark of any team with a lineup playing 20 minutes or more. They have been a tad slow and methodical — to be expected over an 82 game season — but their poor offensive play wasn’t even crucial to team success, as the five-man bench unit has played at a ridiculous rate, with an astronomical offensive rating of 140.2 and defensive rating of 79.1 in 44 minutes through the last three games.

Although, the starters’ slump is worth monitoring because of their crucial playoff role. Since OG Anunoby was introduced to the starting lineup, they have posted a very solid 12.6 net rating, yet been prone to spells of gummy offence. Real questions about this group exist. Does the unit provide the right mix of offense and defence? Are Valanciunas and Ibaka an optimal pairing? As the season winds down, it will be interesting to see how Dwane Casey mixes bench players in with the starting unit. Lineup optimization is crucial in the playoffs, and with a team so deep on productive players, Casey will face tough choices.

Charlotte’s Plan of Attack

Charlotte has been perfectly mediocre in the Kemba Walker era. They last made the playoffs in the 2015-2016 season, with a stingy defense and middle of the pack offense. Since then, they’ve been a treadmill team who missed the playoffs last season and look to miss them again this season. The defense lost some juice, their young players stalled, and the core has stayed largely in tack, leading to some stagnation. Despite a drop-off from two seasons ago, this current team still has hallmarks of the previous iteration. Kemba Walker can destroy you from the point of attack, similar to Kyle Lowry just a few years ago. He controls the pace of the game exquisitely, dropping 40+ points in two of his last five games.

The Hornets present a formidable starting unit with a net rating of 4.6 in 671 minutes of play. The drop off comes from the bench, which is middle of the pack in scoring at 35.8 points per game, good for 16th in the league, but, do so inefficiently at a 40.5% clip.

Lowry will have his work cut out for him containing Walker off the bounce, but barring anything crazy happening, the Hornets don’t have the talent to compete with the Raptors.