Every season, there are teams caught in the NBA’s wasteland. Even as most teams embrace tanking — this being the last year before the league changes draft lottery odds — there are those that get... caught.
Right now, the Charlotte Hornets are caught. At a record of 28-35, they’re tenth in the East — 4.5 games back of a playoff spot, yet nine games ahead of last-place Atlanta. In the position they’re in, with just six weeks left in the season, it looks like they’ll miss the playoffs and have a mediocre draft pick.
This being a Raptors website, I only bring this up to say: don’t take what’s happening now for granted. Toronto was often in that NBA grey area just a handful of years ago. And while there’s certainly frustration for Hornets fans, Raptors observers can commiserate. After all, the one time the team wasn’t in a not-great draft position, they selected Andrea Bargnani first overall.
Tonight, we get these two teams in different mindsets. The Hornets are trying to define their season, while the Raptors want to solidify first place and finish a four-game sweep of Charlotte.
Here’s the game details.
Where to Watch
TSN 1/4, 6 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Charlotte - Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard
Toronto - OG Anunoby (questionable - ankle)
Charlotte - Cody Zeller (questionable - knee)
Kemba vs. Kyle
As with any matchup against Charlotte, the focal point will be at the point guard position. Kemba Walker comes in scoring at least 20 in seven of his last eight games, with two 31-point outings against Brooklyn and Chicago. In fact, the Hornets have succeeded as Kemba has — they’ve won five of those eight games.
Opposing him will be Kyle Lowry, who hasn’t inspired confidence with his defense lately. He was lackadaisical again against Washington on Friday, going against Tomas Satoransky instead of the injured John Wall. Lackadaisical for Lowry usually means a couple things: gambling with help defense and allowing penetration from the point of attack. Against Kemba, you have to worry more about the latter.
How Lowry deals with this matchup on the defensive end will dictate how long Charlotte can stay in the game.
If we had our crystal balls out in 2011, how shocked would we be that, seven years down the road, Jonas Valanciunas would dominate every matchup with Dwight Howard? It shows the projection of their two careers how that’s played out, and the last Hornets-Raptors meeting was another example. Valanciunas went bonkers, with 21 points on 14 shots, nine rebounds, two assists, a steal, and a block.
It was also a rare event that the Raptors’ starters and the bench played well at the same time, and Dwight struggled with everyone. Howard had a respectable 17-point, 13-rebound game, but on defense neither he nor Cody Zeller had the combination of foot speed to deal with Jakob Poeltl, or the strength to bang with Jonas Valanciunas.
For the Raptors, their two centres are coming in on a high, and if they can continue to win those minutes against an aging great, Toronto will be pleased.
Small Forward Rotation
I did my part. I pumped up Norman Powell in my Raptors-Wizards preview on Friday, but it was to no avail. With OG Anunoby injured, Powell was inserted into the starting lineup. He played nearly 17 minutes, and it was dismal — zero points on 0-for-2 shooting and three fouls.
I disagree with the notion that Dwane Casey should give up on Powell, but it does raise questions to how he splits those minutes. Malcolm Miller gave them six minutes of meaningful time at the wing, making a go-ahead three in one of Toronto’s best runs. There’s also smaller wing lineups that the team is comfortable with — those with Delon Wright or DeMar DeRozan sliding down.
The Raptors don’t need Powell to be great to win in the regular season. That much is obvious, as he’s struggled in a season where the team is 44-17. Yet, the truthers remember that it was Powell who’s bailed out Lowry and DeRozan in, not one, but two playoff series. It makes you believe that his number may be called again.
OG’s struggles plays into this too. While there hasn’t been a definitive word on whether he’ll play tonight, an offensive spark from the rookie would go far to securing the three-spot rotation as the season winds down. Anunoby is shooting just 44.8% from the field and 29% from three over the team’s last 15.