The Raptors need every win they can get to surpass the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed. With the Charlotte Hornets missing seven rotation players due to injury, the Raptors capitalized on their massive talent advantage and enjoyed a relatively stress-free win.
Friday’s loss to the 76ers was partly a result of lackluster performances from their top two players, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. Today’s game was in complete contrast to Friday, as the birthday boy Siakam scored 36 points on 16/24 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, and finished with seven assists to zero turnovers. But the story of this game was VanVleet.
Now nearing the end of his seventh season with the Toronto Raptors, Fred VanVleet’s name is becoming an increasingly common sight in the Raptors’ record book. He’s second in all-time three-pointers and eighth in points. He broke the franchise single-game scoring record with a 54-point game in 2021. Today, he became the first Raptor to record 20 assists in a single game, breaking a record shared by predecessors Damon Stoudamire, Jose Calderon, and Kyle Lowry. He finished the game with just two turnovers to his 20 assists, 20 points, five rebounds, and three steals.
VanVleet controlled this game basically from start to finish, finishing the first quarter with 11 points and six assists. VanVleet established the two-man game with Jakob Poeltl early on, and the pair found their usual synergy with ease. Poeltl did an excellent job creating space for VanVleet with screens, and VanVleet rewarded the big man with some nice set-ups inside. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford commented that VanVleet “dominated that game. [...] He just crushed us.” Clifford is familiar with VanVleet’s prowess, as he was also the opposing coach for VanVleet’s 54-point game.
VanVleet was truly in his bag today. He finished a couple shots that bordered on the circus variety. He was tremendous in pick-and-roll situations – and not just as a passer! On one possession he used a Poeltl screen to hit a three, while on a later trip he split two defenders and drove for an and-one floater. He also made a nice defensive impact, including a couple forced turnovers that led to transition points.
Siakam certainly did his part to help VanVleet’s assist total. The power forward did an excellent job sealing defenders to make himself a target, and looked quick and sharp once he had the ball. Fittingly, he made the bucket to get VanVleet his 20th assist.
This was a rare game where the whole starting unit looked good at the same time, with each starter scoring 12 or more points. That level of balance on offense made things extra difficult for a Hornets team missing a number of key players.
O.G. Anunoby played an excellent game, going 9/13 from the field (5/6 on threes!) and finishing with 23 points and seven rebounds. His shooting punished the defense for over-helping against Fred’s pick-and-roll possessions, while Anunoby also finished a few nice plays driving into the paint. Anunoby unfortunately left near the end of the fourth quarter after turning his ankle.
After consecutive huge games, Scottie Barnes was a bit quieter today, but that’s to be expected when VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby are both rolling like they were. But Barnes still made a nice impact with a few overpowering takes to the basket (would love to see more of those!), a beautiful pass to a baseline cutting Chris Boucher for an open dunk, as well as a straight-up block on a three-point attempt.
There was very little cause for concern in this one. The Hornets brought the lead to within 10 during the fourth quarter, and Toronto’s bench unit wasn’t providing tons of offense. But the team didn’t look even a little rattled. They extended their lead enough to convince Nick Nurse to sub out the starters with 90 seconds left (he called a timeout to do so, mind you – not the most frequent occurrence!).
On the Hornets’ side, Svi Mykhailiuk shined today as he torched his former team with 26 points, five assists, and two steals. Mykhailiuk was unconscious, hitting five threes including a stepback, a catch-and-shoot in transition, and a pull-up (plus the foul). He was zipping around off-ball screens and knocking down shots so consistently that the Raptors assigned their best defender, O.G. Anunoby, to guard him. (Anunoby picked up a foul while chasing Mykhailiuk around a screen.) That Mykhailiuk kid can play! Imagine adding a guy like that to the Raptors’ bench...
Kai Jones provided some fun highlights as he showed off some rim protection chops, blocking Scottie Barnes, Siakam, and Precious Achiuwa. James Bouknight was given the keys to handle the offense at times, and he ended up with 21 points on 7/11 shooting. Mark Williams finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds (seven offensive boards!). The Hornets have young talent to work with. I wonder if they’re targeting anyone specific in the upcoming draft!
Chris Boucher, Christian Koloko, Achiuwa, and Jeff Dowtin each played between 10 and 16 minutes off the bench. Each made a couple nice plays, though nothing that makes you feel much better about the bench versus non-tanking opponents. The good news: the Raptors have the exact same opponent on Tuesday!
A couple of the injured Hornets could return for that game. Nonetheless, the Raptors have a clear path to getting above .500 for the first time since early December: beating the Charlotte Hornets. They’ve already done it three times this year, and they did so handily today. Let’s see if they can make it four.