With just five regular season games remaining – and a tiebreaker that favours the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed – the Toronto Raptors need to capitalize on every winnable matchup they can. Enter the Charlotte Hornets.
The Hornets sit at 26-52 on the season, putting them in 14th place in the Eastern Conference. They’ve quietly put together a nice stretch of basketball under head coach Steve Clifford, highlighted by back-to-back wins against the Mavericks and a subsequent win in Oklahoma City. But guys like Gordon Hayward and P.J. Washington played big roles during the team’s positive stretch, so with both players likely sidelined today – in addition to a plethora of other Hornets – the Raptors find themselves in a very winnable matchup.
Nothing is guaranteed. In fact, there’s a good chance this upcoming stretch could be quite annoying! But with two consecutive games against a shorthanded Hornets team, the Raptors have a very real opportunity to get back above .500 for the first time since December 9th. The Raptors are already 2-0 against the Hornets this season. A series sweep would be at best a boon, and probably a necessity, for their chances at reaching the eighth seed.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 1:00pm EST
Toronto – Scottie Barnes, Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl
Charlotte – Theo Maledon, Svi Mykhailiuk, Bryce McGowens, JT Thor, Mark Williams
Toronto – Gary Trent Jr. (elbow - questionable), Will Barton (ankle - probable), Dalano Banton (thumb - probable), Otto Porter Jr. (foot - out for season)
Charlotte – Terry Rozier (foot - OUT), Cody Martin (knee - OUT), Gordon Hayward (thumb - doubtful), Kelly Oubre (shoulder - questionable), Dennis Smith Jr. (toe - questionable), P.J. Washington (ankle - questionable), LaMelo Ball (ankle - out for season)
Nick Nurse Uncertainty
Nick Nurse made headlines when, before Friday’s game against the 76ers, he mentioned that following the end of the season, he will “take a few weeks to see where [he’s] at, where [his] head’s at, to see how the relationship with the organization is and everything.”
Nurse assured that he’s focused on this job and the team’s upcoming games, and so far there’s been no indication that he’s any less committed to making a playoff push (although his stubborn commitment to playing overly aggressive defense didn’t do them many favours vs Philly). Those comments could very well have no effect on the team’s play either, but Nurse may have opened the door for people to question just how invested he is in the team’s success right now.
Scottie Barnes has been on a late-season tear, averaging 25.5 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists on 66% shooting over the last two games. He’s been assertive finding his own shots, making great passes and finding cutters, and super active on the offensive glass.
Barnes has been hot out of the gate each of the last two games: he scored 12 points in the first quarter vs the Heat, then 10 points and six assists in the first against the Sixers. Getting Barnes involved early and allowing him more offensive responsibility has paid dividends, but perhaps the next step is giving him the keys at the end of games as well. Barnes has shown strong flashes down the stretch of games – an increased role for Barnes could help the Raptors figure out their clutch time issues.
Early Bird Gets the W?
Fun fact: the Raptors are 6-1 this season in games that started at 5pm or earlier. The lone defeat was a hard-fought 106-104 loss to the Boston Celtics... Is this anything? Are the Raptors a good early team? Is this a coincidence? A Raptors win today could be solely the result of the 1pm start time. If the Raptors make it to the first round of the playoffs, they’ll surely be considered for the much-maligned noon start time on NBA TV. But who knows – maybe that’s right where this team wants to be!