Nothing says boring for the Raptors like a late-March game with no real stakes against the Charlotte Hornets. We can suppose the latter team feels like they’re still battling for a playoff spot, and we can assume the former is happy to finally have a full complement of players available, but the original thesis holds: it’s hard to get too up for a game like that. This goes a long way towards explaining the Raptors’ performance — and the ridiculous final play — in their 115-114 loss to the Hornets on Sunday evening: Toronto just wanted to make it interesting.
And so, in effect, it was. Despite a confident first quarter in which the Raps’ starters got the chance to really go to work together (pushing their lead to 12 early), the Hornets kept them on their toes for the next two frames (taking their own 14-point lead later). Some of this was due to a soft overall effort by the bench, some of it was due to the Hornets’ absurd three-point shooting, and some of it was clearly due to that aforementioned Toronto malaise.
By the time the Raptors had secured a two-point lead after an exciting fourth quarter comeback, it felt like they were destined to win — if only they could smother Charlotte’s shooters for one more possession. “We couldn’t guard the three-ball all night,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “That was the capper.”
The “capper” in this case was an absurd, high-arching, buzzer-beating, banked-in, mid-court heave from the Hornet’s Jeremy Lamb. With 3.1 seconds left, and the Raptors leading by two, things had firmly turned against Charlotte. Even after the ball was inbounded, Pascal Siakam managed to poke it away, driving Lamb past mid-court. Everything was in place for a shot made in pure desperation, an attempt without hope. And yet, well, here:
THAT. JUST. HAPPENED. #Hornets30 pic.twitter.com/1IZvrQ483g— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) March 25, 2019
It’s hard to get too mad about this play, really. The Raptors didn’t make any mistakes in their defense, and were in a good position to win this game — despite their earlier sluggish efforts. In isolation you just have to laugh about it, shake your head, and move on. Still, we have to consider the full 48 minutes here, and in that analysis it’s a little easier to get annoyed with Toronto.
Much like their Friday contest against the Thunder, the Raptors were once again behind in their shot attempts (93 to 77), and couldn’t do enough to corral loose balls, be they offensive rebounds (they gave up 14) or turnovers (13). Those are the kind of numbers that suggest a lack of effort on the part of the Raptors. It’s also how Charlotte can end up shooting 44 percent from three on 41 attempts, including lines of 5-of-8 from Dwayne Bacon and 3-of-4 from Lamb. And it’s how the Hornets can survive a 3-of-17 night from the field by their best player, Kemba Walker.
In what’s becoming a theme of late, the Raptors were led by Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, who scored 28 and 23 points, respectively. Much like on Friday night, Leonard only made his presence truly felt in fits and starts, but he still shot 10-of-18 from the field, grabbed nine boards, dished three assists, and added two blocks — including one late that preserved the lead he’d just given the Raptors seconds earlier on a jumper in the lane. Siakam’s tally came in more minutes (36 to 33) but on fewer shots (he was 9-of-14); Pascal also added seven rebounds and five assists, and, like Kawhi, cranked up the defense when the team absolutely needed it. (Of concern though: Siakam’s five turnovers. That’s 12 in two games, which is not a positive trend for the young forward.)
Playing with their plausible crunch-time small-ball lineup of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green, the Raptors were able to eventually claw back into this one. Green had a quiet offensive night (just two points), but FVV continued his strong run of play with 12 points, five rebounds, and three assists. Lowry, meanwhile, is not at 100 percent — he admitted as much after the game — but was able to put in seven points while dishing six assists. Here’s hoping Lowry, who also admitted he wants to play through his latest injury, can regain the form he had just a couple weeks ago.
In the frontcourt, the speed of the game meant Marc Gasol was left on the bench for the entire final quarter, but the big Spaniard had a nice bounce back game anyway. For his part, Gasol put in 17 points (on 7-of-9 shooting) to go with six assists, four rebounds, and three blocks. His centre counterpart Serge Ibaka was a tad more up-and-down, getting 17 minutes in, for 10 points — but only one rebound. Life on the bench still doesn’t quite suit Ibaka, and his play with the other bench mainstays OG Anunoby, FVV, Patrick McCaw, and Jeremy Lin has been mostly subpar. This isn’t all on Serge, of course — but it has been the story of the bench all year for the Raptors. They were mostly a net negative in the game, and while the starters didn’t right the ship immediately for Toronto (e.g. Charlotte’s lead got bigger in the third in part under their watch), the subs certainly didn’t help the situation.
The bright spot off the bench in this one was Norman Powell. Despite not playing at all in the first half, Powell came in to close the third, and then got some serious burn in the fourth (almost nine minutes). One sequence saw Norm go off for a little personal 7-0 run, with a made three and pair of lay-ups sandwiched around one of his two steals. Powell’s made a case for himself to get playoff minutes, and the Raptors may need that kind of burst from him in the near future.
The Raptors sit now at 51-23 and clearly just want to get to the playoffs. What kind of condition and mindset they’ll be in when they get there is anyone’s guess. Lowry now has to re-round into form, and the team is clearly still trying out some things out with their rotations. I don’t want to make too much out of it because, well, I just want the Raptors to get to the playoffs too. If nothing else, we got a silly highlight out of tonight’s game. Not the outcome we’d want here in Toronto — but worse things can (and have) happened.
Eight games remain.