The Charlotte Hornets were in town as the Toronto Raptors were desperate to find some holiday cheer on the court, a gift that should have been easy enough to unwrap given the depleted Hornets roster that flew into town. The visitors were down three starters for a mix of health and legal reasons, and were running with a noticeably shrunken bench. However, this is your 2023-24 Raptors so nothing is easy.
Before tip off, there was a touching moment of silence for former Raptor and UNC legend Eric Montross, who unfortunately passed away after a courageous battle with cancer earlier today. Having a genuine moment of humanity ahead of what was looking like a mediocre at best basketball game was a nice reminder than some things are bigger than sport.
As for the sport, here’s how it went...
Toronto trotted out a familiar, yet dissapointing if you were looking for a spark, starting five of Siakam, Poeltl, Barnes, Annunoby, and Schröder. Charlotte seemed to throw a plan-C iteration of a starting five onto the court, and it worked. Brandon Miller opened the scoring as the Hornets capitalized on Schröder launching an assist to the sideline, though it looked like it was intended for Siakam.
The Raptors took their time getting into this one, with the first points coming off of a Scottie 3-pointer which would also be the lone bucket from beyond the arc that the team would sink in the opening frame. Unfortunately, the slow start wasn’t something that would be shaken, rather it set the tone for the rest of the evening.
By the halfway point of the first quarter, the Raptors were on pace for 48 turnovers. Not exactly how you wanna get out of the blocks in your own building. A big contributor to the turnover problems were the bounce passes in the paint; they were finding Hornets more often than they found a fellow Raptor, which given the questionable state of Toronto’s transition defence made for quite the staggering Hornets’ runs.
The Raptors transition defense has been genuinely terrible as of late. pic.twitter.com/SULLuvVYJz— Esfandiar Baraheni (@JustEsBaraheni) December 19, 2023
Toronto called a timeout down 18-9 in an attempt to stop an 11-0 Charlotte run. Dear reader this is the part where I predicatbly tell you that it did not work.
Pascal missed the jumper on the ensuing possesion and Charlotte would go on to build on their run, pushing their lead to 11.
The first quarter mercifully came to an end for Raptors fans with a mildly enthusiastic Chris Boucher dunk, bringing the score to 27-19 for the Hornets. The Raptors ended the first with the same amount of turnover as field goals (seven) as they shot 7-18 and a dismal 1-6 from deep.
The bright spot? They were a perfect 4-4 on free throws!
The very very dark spot? Toronto has yet to win a quarter in December, having been outscored by 48 combined points through 7 opening frame attempts.
Including tonight, Raptors have been down by 10 or more points in 9 of their last 10 games.— Keerthika Uthayakumar (@keerthikau) December 19, 2023
4 of those 10 games have been against the Hornets & the Hawks.
The second quarter had the highlight of the night up until that point when Precious Achiuwa put back the missed Barnes reverse layup. While I’m sure Barnes would have liked to have had the highlight play, he got one of his own a few moments later with a smackdown block that shook my soul. Unfortunately, the play ended in a 3-shot foul for Charlotte.
While that Barnes block proved all-for-naught, it did prove that he’s one of the few Raptors who shows up with full compete night in and night out, something the home fans absolutely showed their appreciation for. A fact proved even more by seeing that two and a half minutes into the second quarter the youngster already had seven rebounds.
Besides Barnes, the biggest bright spot of the first half was Gary Trent Jr, who would head into the break having played 18 minutes and notching 11 points to go along with six rebounds. The guard was definetly making his case to crack the starting five, whether or not coach Rajakovic is willing to shuffle deck.
SCOTTIE GOIN' OFF— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 19, 2023
18 PTS | 16 REB | 7 AST pic.twitter.com/2gvTpRW5Zh
Funnily enough, it was a GTJ moment that perfectly encapsulated one of the Raptors’ biggest struggles: the inability to build anything resembling momentum or flow. Immediately after Trent Jr sunk one of the biggest buckets of the first half, Toronto responded with a pseudo-defensive stop before promptly letting the ball roll back to Charlotte who wasted no time swishing a three pointer of their own. Without being overly exagerative, it felt like every time the Raptors would deliver something positive in tonight’s first half, they promptly tripped over their own shoes laces and were back on their heels.
Dennis Schröder finally made an appearance on the score sheet with 90 seconds left in the first half, which seems like a less-than-ideal time for your starting PG to get his first points but anyways...
Pascal closed out the half with the spiciest of three-pointers to sendf the Raptors into the locker room only down 4, with a Hornets lead of 52-48.
The second half seemingly brought with it a completely renewed Raptors team. Granted, they followed up a Schröder three to open the fram by being cut through like a hot knife through butter, but it was mainly uphill from there.
Before the real up-hillness of it all started though, Toronto would commit offensive fouls on three consecutive posessions, which if momentum was hard to come by in the first half, it felt, for the fans at least, impossible to find now.
In a welcome change from their form in the first half, the Raptors kept up with the Hornets for a solid stretch in the third, with both teams trading baskets but neither side was able to run away with things. The Raptors called a timeout down 64-59 and came back out with two quick scores to cut the deficit to one for the second time in the quarter. It was at this point that the crowd seemed to get back into it, right alongside the home team.
Scotiabank Arena’s chants for defence were answered with a Barned block that, because this season is what it is, was called goaltending. It’s the thought that counts right?
The energy in the building reached a new peak with GTJ treating Toronto faithful to a picture perfect shot from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, the energy was sucked right back out along with Toronto’s defensive commitment on the following Hornets possession.
Toronto finally found themselves in the lead after Schröder sunk two free throws with 3:24 left in the third quarter, and Charlotte wasted to time calling a timeout as their grasp was slipping away.
The third quarter was a far better basketball performance from the Raptors, though not perfect so they went into the final frame down 81-79.
As the fourth quarter started there was that unmistakable feeling of Toronto sports hope buzzing around the building. You know the kind, the brand of hope that you have every time you get back with your toxic ex and are bracing to see if they’ve actually changed knowing full well you have a 50-50 shot at being heartbroken? Yeah, Scotiabank Arena was full of THAT.
Thankfully for the home crowd, the Raptors were still full of grit and energy which was on full display as Boucher dialed up a diabolocal dunk to tie the game. Not long after, Boucher was on the receiving end of a PJ Washington Jr flagrant foul and sunk the awarded free throws for the lead.
Out of almost nowhere, the Raptors were rolling. Toronto stoned Charlotte on their next few trips down the court and on a night that had looked as bleak and can be, the home team found themselves up 90-85 with just under eight minutes to play. I hope someone recorded whatever Rajakovic was saying at the half and between the third and fourth quarters because it clearly unlocked and awoke something within this team that hasn’t always been available to them this season.
The Toronto sports hope was boiling into a full-on confidence by fans and players alike. GTJ continued his impressive night, dropping buckets with the cool-and-collected swagger of a consistent starter, a role he may very well find himself in sooner rather than later. Trent Jr finished with 22 points on the night, tied for second on the team with Barnes.
Achiuwa ignited the crowd again with a no-nonsense dunk to push the Raptors’ lead to eight that forced the Hornets to call a timeout facing their biggest hole of the night. The call worked out in the end for Charlotte in the short term as Barnes was called for goaltending on the ensuing possession, seeing the Hornets float back to within five after a failed Raptors challenge.
Toronto faithful earned their holiday present with 4:38 left in the final fram as Siakam sank an and-one that brought the Raptors to 100 points and the fans to their feet. The seven point lead almost felt safe. although the Hornet made it clear that they would not be going away without making the final few minutes as uncomfortable as the first two quarters.
The closing sequences created an atmosphere so far from recognizable of the early goings of the game you would be hard-pressed to convince on-lookers that they were watching the same game. The true highlight of the night came with a full-throttle Raptors defensive stop that led to an Annunoby three-point attempt that was double-rebounded by Barnes for the put back. Finally, everyone in the arena believed Toronto would triumph.
The bright spot, even more than the W, continues to be the evolution of Scottie Barnes.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) December 19, 2023
22 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 blocks, 7-14 FG, 1-2 3P.
Kept 'em in it long enough for Siakam to take over, Trent to get hot and the defence to show up. Another gem for the rising ⭐️
Of course, the Raptors believed that all along.
The Hornets called another timeout down 102-93 but could not get enough out of their depleted lineup to mount the final hurdle of the would-be upset. Barnes would drop one more put back bucket to put the Raptors up 114-99.
Siakam dribbled it out to a shot clock violation giving Charlotte the final possession, but it didn’t matter; the Raptors gave their fans the best holiday gift: a roller-coaster, nail-biting, uncomfortable win.
Toronto will try and keep the good times rolling on Wednesday when the champs roll in to town. The biggest question mark ahead of that one will undoubtedly be the Raptors starting five, who simply have not been getting it done. With the breakout performance of GTJ tonight, could we see him work his way into the opening tip lineup?