The Raptors have struggled as of late, losing their last three games, and five of their last six. Of course, the fact that they’ve been without three of their most important players has exacerbated the situation, to say the least. And while the Raptors got off to a slow start against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday, the Raptors came so close — Tony Snell close — to pulling off the shorthanded victory. But alas, the team clearly missed the presence of their usual starters in the closing minutes, and now find themselves in ninth place in the East with a 17-20 record.
Coming out of the All-Star break, there was optimism that perhaps some — or even just one — of the five players out due to health and safety protocols would be able to return. Obviously, one simply hopes that the players are safe and healthy, and better to exercise caution than rush guys back. But this run of games against other East teams all gunning for play-in spots is a crucial stretch for the Raptors to improve their position, and the team is clearly suffering from its drain of talent and depth.
Up next for the Raptors are the 18-18 Charlotte Hornets, who sit not-so-comfortably in the East’s sixth spot. These two teams faced off in back-to-back games in mid-January, and the Raptors won both on the final possessions (seemingly the only times the Raptors have done so this season). The Hornets, who felt wronged by the refs in one of those finishes, may very well have circled this rematch on their schedule. Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, and Chris Boucher were all major factors in those two Raptors wins — if the team wants to make the season series 3-0, those three will have to do even more tonight.
Here are the game details.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 7:00 pm EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, DeAndre’ Bembry, Stanley Johnson, Aron Baynes
Charlotte – LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington, Cody Zeller
Toronto – Pascal Siakam (out – health and safety protocols), Fred VanVleet (out – health and safety protocols), OG Anunoby (out – health and safety protocols), Patrick McCaw (out – health and safety protocols), Malachi Flynn (out – health and safety protocols)
Charlotte – None
A New Norm
Norman Powell as a starter this year is averaging 22.6 points in 33.7 minutes per game on a wicked .680 true shooting percentage. He’s averaged 26.2 points over his last nine games. What began as a novelty has become something we now expect, especially with the absences of Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby. He has his limitations, sure, but Powell’s offensive development has been thrilling to watch.
Against Atlanta, we even saw Norm make some nice kick-out passes to open shooters. Powell can’t reliably be the primary playmaker on the court, but with opponents now game-planning for him, and with the Hornets likely to use some zone defense to slow Toronto, the Raptors would love to see more of this drive-and-kick ability from Powell.
When the Raptors and Hornets last played, LaMelo Ball was still a bench player in his first month in the league. In the time since, head coach James Borrego has further empowered Ball in the Hornets’ rotation, and Ball has delivered by becoming a more aggressive scorer.
The January vs February splits tell the tale — Ball started zero games in January, and averaged 12.6 points on a .513 TS%, 6.2 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in 26 minutes per game. In February, Ball put up 20.1 points per game on a .574 TS% with the same rebound and assist numbers, in eight additional minutes. Ball still has growing to do as a player, but the version of him that the Raptors must game-plan for tonight is a bigger handful than the one they faced in January.
Closing Out Games
It’s been a theme all year, from the painful buzzer-beater misses on their early west coast trip to the most recent last-second meltdown against the Hawks. The Raptors have been bad at closing out tight games. In fact, they have the league’s third-worst record — ahead of the Timberwolves and Pistons — in clutch games this season, at 7-14.
With last night's loss, the Raptors fell to 7-14 in games within 5 points or less in the final 5 minutes. Only 2 teams have a worse record in 'clutch' games this season: the last-place Pistons (3-16) and the last-place Timberwolves (6-13).— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 12, 2021
Considering the absent Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby are likely the team’s most important defenders, the Raptors’ defensive lapses down the stretch against Atlanta look more, well, defensible. But all year the Raptors have given up offensive rebounds and buckets late in games, and they’ve had no shortage of stagnating, direction-less offensive possessions in clutch situations. The Raptors won their pair of games against the Hornets this season on missed buzzer-beating threes forced by stingy defense and switchable personnel. It’ll be tougher for the Raptors to find buckets down the stretch without so many of their usual offensive weapons, so if this game has a close finish, they’ll need to play active, sound defense.