Mediocrity presents itself through a number of different symptoms for NBA teams. One of these telltale signs is the inability to string together multiple wins in a row. Seven games have passed since the Toronto Raptors last managed to win consecutive games (vs. the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers in December). That fun stretch came eleven games after their previous streak, also of two games, which occurred in late November. The Raptors have not won three games in a row this season. Coming off a win against the Portland Trail Blazers, and with consecutive home games against the 11-30 Charlotte Hornets, the Raptors have as good an opportunity as any to change that.
The Hornets are deeply entrenched in the Victor Wembanyama tank-a-thon, but they can still present some issues for the Raptors with LaMelo Ball’s dynamic playmaking and Mason Plumlee’s size in the paint. If the Raptors are serious about making the playoffs, they need to take care of opponents like Charlotte — and they desperately need to stop losing after every win.
Yes, mid-season turnarounds are possible, but the Raptors are now halfway through the season and sit six games below .500. They’re as healthy as they’ve been all season, with only Otto Porter on the injury report. The time to turn things around is now. The Raptors have a lot of ground to cover — but handling their business against the Hornets is a great place to start.
Where to Watch:
TSN1/4/5, 7:30pm EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes
Charlotte – LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, P.J. Washington, Jalen McDaniels, Mason Plumlee
Toronto – Otto Porter Jr. (toe – out)
Charlotte – Kelly Oubre (hand – out), Gordon Hayward (hamstring – questionable)
Sagging off Scottie
While he’s never drawn much attention beyond the arc, defenses have recently sagged off Scottie Barnes to load up the paint, to the point that they’re almost ignoring him. Barnes has at times looked passive against this coverage. Against the Blazers, though, Barnes punished Jusuf Nurkic for parking in the paint. On one possession, Barnes dribbled into a mid-range jumper. On another, Nurkic left Barnes to provide help, and Barnes punished him with a backdoor cut.
He’s not going to develop a consistent three-pointer this year, but Barnes can still punish sagging defenders with his size, skill, and by asserting himself as a scoring threat. He did so with his 22 points against Portland, and he should look to continue attacking the space that defenses give him.
Out of their Depth
The good news: All five of the Raptors’ starters are looking good. Trent is back in the starting lineup and playing an important role as a bucket-getter, VanVleet has fought through his slump and is playing winning basketball, and Scottie Barnes is growing as an assertive offensive player. The bad news: The starters cannot play 48 minutes a night.
The Raptors’ bench has routinely blown leads built by the starters this season. Boucher has had a very quiet season, Thad Young has been inconsistent, Precious Achiuwa still needs to work his way back into form after his injury, Malachi Flynn can be punished too easily for his size, and Otto Porter has been injured almost the whole season. Christian Koloko has shown promising signs, like Sunday when he helped extend the lead with his eight points, four rebounds, and two assists on a game-high +20. Still, he picked up five fouls in 13 minutes, illustrating how rookie mistakes get in the way of consistent production. And that’s the problem: the Raptors do not have a single reliable, consistently productive player on their bench. When all five starters are scoring and playing well, like they did on Sunday, then they can still win games. But if one or two starters has an off night against Charlotte, the bench will need to pick up some slack.
Big Picture Check-in
The Raptors are currently 17-23, good for 12th in the East and 5.5 games behind the sixth-place playoff spot. In the Wembanyama league, they are 6.5 games out of the top three, who each have even odds for the first overall pick. If the season ended today, the Raptors would miss the playoffs while possessing a 31.9% chance of a top-four pick in the draft lottery.
Nobody outside the front office really knows what the team will do ahead of the trade deadline. Some fans are calling for them to make an upgrade at center, or to trade for a reliable scorer off the bench. Others want the Raptors to trade away pieces and make a push in the Wembanyama sweepstakes. But there is also a third, less sexy option: letting the season play out. While a Gary Trent trade is certainly conceivable due to the team’s cap situation, Masai Ujiri might just be content to let this roster play the season out in hopes of finding a rhythm the way they did last year. Of course, at this point last season, the Raptors had already churned out a win streak and passed the .500 mark. There’s still time for them to climb the standings – but if the Raptors’ flaws keep them from enjoying a similar turnaround, they could be content to add a lottery pick to their existing core. The results of this six-game home stand could have a significant impact on which direction the front office chooses.