Wins are supposed to feel better than that, if I recall.
If you look at the whole of the Raptors’ 111-108 win over the Hornets on Tuesday, there was quite a lot to like. Toronto controlled play from the outset; Kyle Lowry helped unearth a potentially nice bench unit (!); and a double-digit cushion more often than not sat between the Raps and the Gordon Hayward-less Hornets.
It’s unfortunately the way this one ended that’ll leave a bitter taste on the tongue of Raptors fans, probably until their next game on Saturday night.
Leading 99-86 through three quarters, an easy win against an inferior team clearly running out of steam on a back to back seemed just about wrapped up. Of course, ‘easy’ hasn’t been in this team’s vernacular much this year.
Charlotte opened the fourth in the zone that had given the Raptors’ spurts of trouble throughout the night, though nothing a little Stanley Johnson or Chris Boucher operating the nail couldn’t eventually bust. No seriously, Johnson was kind good for a second-straight game.
As the game flipped over to the fourth, Toronto’s three point luck ran dry, and the Hornets understandable stayed married to the clutter their zone created. Only two Raptors — Chris Boucher and Pascal Siakam — scored in the quarter; Toronto finished with just 12 in the frame, barely enough to survive a game that really had no business coming down to Hornets missed three on the final possession. Toronto entered the game with the league’s third-worst NET Rating in clutch minutes per NBA.com, and they’re not exactly set to be launched up the rankings, even with the third win of the season now in the books. Apart from a couple gorgeous Lowry assists to Boucher underneath for dunks, there was very little in the way of functional offense to be found for Toronto in the closing minutes — a trend that threatens to undo all the progress the team has genuinely made since the opening of their western road trip.
As was alluded to up top, there was plenty to be thrilled about in this one. After Aron Baynes got the surprise start and performed like, well, 2021 Aron Baynes, Boucher did his best to put the starting lineup conversation to bed for good. Replacing Baynes to open the second half after a 16-point outburst in the opening 24, Toronto’s best early season story finished with a team-high 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting with 10 boards, two blocks, a 2-of-4 mark from downtown, and seven makes on eight trips to the line. Boucher’s vaulted past being an exciting reserve oddity. He’s an essential piece of Toronto’s offense, and while he still gets out-muscled on the glass more than you’d like from your center, he’s far and away been the best big man option for Nick Nurse right now. He should probably get the start on Saturday in a rematch of tonight’s tilt. Although it’ll be a shame to cut his surefire Sixth Man campaign short.
Was curious about reserve WARP leaders after Patty Mills' Sixth Man candidacy came up during the TNT broadcast. pic.twitter.com/REIaC9zksH— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) January 15, 2021
That said, his entry into the game on Thursday coincided with perhaps the most encouraging stretch of reserve play Toronto’s seen this year outside of the Kings game last Friday. Lowry and Boucher, joined by Johnson, Norman Powell and Yuta Watanabe, absolutely killed it between the late-first and mid-second. Through a mix of defensive smarts, Lowry pushing the pace off misses and steals, and some reliable finishing from Boucher and Powell — yes, Powell — the latest Lowry plus bench crew pushed the Raptors out in front by as many as 15 before the Hornets slowly reeled them in by the end of the game.
Another quietly positive element on display in the game was Siakam’s understanding of when not to do too much. Charlotte gave him a similar treatment to what the Blazers threw his way in the second half on Monday. Instead of taking his post-ups to the point of no return, he coolly opted to kick out, content to rack up secondary assists as the Raptors executed a legit half-court attack against a constantly rotating Hornets defense. Siakam’s 15-7-4 on 6-of-15 line looks underwhelming, but for the most part, it was meh by design.
All of the good that came before the crummy finish is poses a conundrum. How should Raps fans feel about a win earned by the skin of Boucher’s ass? In many ways win number three felt worse than losses seven and eight. But for the Raptors, whose results over the next few weeks will dictate their plans ahead of the trade deadline and possibly beyond, wins are wins, man. Their process was sound as can be over a road trip that yielded just a single win. It’s high time they got a W on a night where they didn’t do everything by the book.