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Raptors look flat but show their growth, beat Hornets 103-98

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Toronto’s 45th win of the season was not its most convincing, but there were plenty of examples of this team’s growth against Charlotte.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

“I would say a year ago we’d have probably lost the game,” said Dwane Casey during his first appraisal of the Raptors’ needlessly close 103-98 win over Charlotte on Friday.

For those forgiving enough to look past the Raptors’ uneven fourth quarter that nearly allowed the Hornets to steal a win in very Hornetsy fashion, Casey’s post-game elevator pitch is what should be the lasting impression of Toronto’s 45th win of the season.

If you wanted to show a Raptors-ignorant person one game from this season in order to properly display the ways in which the team has altered its identity, Sunday’s win would probably be on the short list of options.

Unsexy as it was in the closing few minutes, the Raptors peppered in all sorts of examples of their profound growth this season on the way to their 11th win in 12 games.

Finding dependable offense from players outside DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry was once a chief concern for Dwane Casey. No problem against Charlotte. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas carried the offense by their damned selves for stretches. This is the 2017-18 Raptors, so their production wasn’t confined to the interior. At one point deep in the third quarter, the pair of starting bigs was a combined 5-of-7 from three, while the rest of the team bricked at a 3-of-18 clip.

Stickiness was once the most aggressive symptom of the guard-dominated Raptors attack of the past. Whether it was Lowry and DeRozan’s reluctance to dish it off, or the fault of a slow-processing supporting cast, the ball rarely if ever hummed before this season. Toronto’s had zippier games prior to Sunday, but there were still plenty of examples of ball movement against the Hornets that would have shocked the collective system of Raptors fans mere months ago. For example: this Valanciunas skip pass out of a double team to the weak side, followed by an around-the-horn swing to DeMar for a three. Yes, that’s a sentence that exists and is factually correct.

An earlier sequence that featured a drive and kick by starting small forward Malcolm Miller that resulted in a JV three could also be filed under “Shit That Didn’t Happen Last Year, and Was Not Predicted in October.”

Despite these instances, Casey was clearly displeased with the Raptors’ offense on the whole. The side-to-side action Valanciunas ignited with what is probably a top-five pass of his career wasn’t common enough on Sunday for Casey’s liking.

“We did not do a good job of playing side to side,” said Casey after praising the highlighted JV play. “We gotta make sure we play side to side basketball and then attack, and that’s where we’ll get good looks from.”

“There’s dog days of the year right now. You can see the end of it but it’s quite a few games to go and we’re playing like it.”

Also on the side of picking nits — Norman Powell’s season lost at sea continued. With Miller earning the start — a move Casey was eager to point out was about getting a look at Miller and not a slight against Powell’s performance — Powell’s on-court time was restricted to just a four-minute pocket at the end of the second quarter. In that spurt he missed a three, bricked an off-glass runner, and fouled Kemba Walker on a three-point try. None of that would have happened a year ago either.

Even with all the positive change this season, crunch time has remained a bugaboo for the Raptors — albeit the process behind their late-game possessions has perked up over the last few games despite mixed results.

Toronto didn’t execute perfectly against Charlotte late, but more progress towards ironing out the team’s most stubborn wrinkle was shown. DeRozan became a little magnetic, but because he’s really good, he converted on a pair of crucial late-game looks — first a contested elbow three, and then an and-1 on a drive that began with an exposé of just how far Nic Batum’s game has fallen off.

Outside of those DeMar-heavy moments, the ball moved briskly in the late going. You could even make the argument that the Raptors actually over-passed on a possession or two. If you need one last reassurance that this is not your slightly older brother’s Raptors team, look no further than the Lowry drive and kick to Jonas for a corner three attempt in the dying minutes that elicited excitement and positivity from Raptors fans. Dwane Casey liked it too!

“We’ll take the corner threes from him,” Casey said after critiquing JV’s poor decision to drive on a similar-looking possession in the clutch.

So no, this wasn’t a perfect Raptors’ performance. They didn’t hang 120-plus on Charlotte for the fourth time this season. The late-game defense was iffy, and the team shot just 12-of-41 from deep, reinforcing the most obvious concern remaining for the East’s top team.

Through the not-so-good stuff on Sunday night, though, was a Raptors team that is in many ways indiscernible from last year’s squad. That the Raptors still showed off their face lift off during an imperfect performance is more meaningful on a macro scale than the final score not being all that convincing.