Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 111-108 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
One — Shaky: The Raptors have found a way to lose games all season, and had there been overtime in this game, as there should have been after P.J. Washington was left open for three to tie, it would have ended up as their ninth loss. It has been the same script all season — the Raptors play well, build a lead, then give it up in the fourth quarter. A good team would have put the Hornets to bed before they threatened to tie, especially since the Hornets were without their best player on the second night of a back-to-back. But the Raptors of this year have not been good, or at least not good enough, to take control of a game when it’s there for the taking. This nearly finished as another loss, and there is little relief that it didn’t.
Two — Collapse: After winning the first three quarters, the Raptors scored just 12 points in the fourth. The Raptors shot 5-of-23 from the field, including 1-of-11 from deep, and they only survived through feasting on the offensive glass against a tired and tiny opponent. The Raptors have developed a nasty habit this season of going cold for extended stretches, and their defense isn’t quite as airtight to hold the lead and to create stops leading to run outs. Since the talent isn’t fully there to always dominate on defense, the Raptors need to summon their top gear on defense.
Three — Zone: Charlotte launched its comeback through its 1-3-1 zone, and the Raptors played right into its hands. At first, the Raptors showed some composure, running careful sets to exploit the weaknesses in the zone by screening for corner shooters, but that was one play, it was missed by Norman Powell, and the Raptors just went away from it. Launching deep pull-up threes isn’t a way to beat the zone, it’s a way to get beat on misses by fuelling the other team in transition. Nick Nurse needs to use the next day of practice to drill into his roster as to how they can counter the zone, because the Hornets will be leaning on it heavily in Saturday’s rematch.
Four — Hero: Chris Boucher was the Raptors’ saviour tonight, even though he nearly gave up the game-tying three to Washington. Boucher matched his career-high with 25 points, and it was his timing on his baseline cuts and persistence on the offensive glass that kept the Raptors’ head above water in an otherwise disastrous fourth quarter. Boucher thrives in up-tempo games, and his skillset matches complements what the Raptors do best. Boucher finally got his turn with the starting five tonight, at least for the second half, and he absolutely deserved it. He still may not start, but Boucher needs to log over 30 minutes a night and to continue closing games.
Five — Activity: The challenge for the Raptors’ bench is to string two solid shifts together. In the first half, the second unit delivered incredible energy. Charlotte is a young team filled with quick guard and bouncy forwards, yet it was the Raptors who overran them with all-out energy. They couldn’t maintain the same hustle in the second half and were promptly yanked in favour of the starters, but it’s something to build on. The formula is simple: Nurse is trying to stack the lineup with as many plus defenders as possible, then to run and play on the fast break as much as possible. The Raptors’ bench was unplayable to start the season, but slowly they are coming around.
Six — Length: Nurse continues to shuffle his bench, this time deploying the combination of Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe at the same time. Previously, Watanabe and Johnson had shared the same role as the energy sparkplug off the bench, but it was an inspired call by Nurse to have both of them on the floor at once. They blanketed the Hornets with their length and hustle, plugging passing lanes, switching freely across all five positions, and did just enough on offense to make it all work. Watanabe hit a three, Johnson followed suit, but their main function is to make the right reads to set up their teammates. Watanabe has always been an intuitive and unselfish player, and Johnson has become that too by making quick reads to either swing the ball, or to drive into the defense before kicking it out.
Seven — Confusing: Powell serves an important function as the go-to scorer off the bench, and he did supply 11 points in 20 minutes largely off transition sequences in the first half. However, he continues to make inexplicable decisions such as forcing drives into a forest of defenders, holding onto the ball too long, playing too soft and getting stripped, and he is quickly becoming the most frustrating player in the rotation. If Powell isn’t scoring close to 20 points, he is a liability because he doesn’t create for others, he is an average defender at best, and Nurse might need to reconsider his options. Can someone else supply Powell’s scoring without the mistakes?
Eight — Brick: This was yet another dismal performance from Aron Baynes. Nurse gave the veteran a start after benching him for the past week, only for the same results to appear. Baynes ruined the spacing for the starting five, making it impossible for anyone to get into the paint since his man was playing free safety, and it seemed to affect Pascal Siakam the most. Baynes also isn’t very mobile defensively, nor is he getting to enough defensive rebounds, and so it is no surprise that he was benched again after his first shift. At least Baynes got his first basket in six games after getting spoon-fed by OG Anunoby on a drive, which showed at least that Baynes can still dunk.
Nine — Confident: Anunoby carried the Raptors early on, hitting two threes, cutting inside for a dunk, and by making the right pass to set up his teammates. His defense has been rock-solid as always, but Anunoby is also quietly stringing together more sequences offensively where it’s becoming normal for Anunoby to use his handle to create something good. There’s still a stiffness with him, and Anunoby might just be too strong for his own good when he drives since every flop is called against him, but the marginal improvements will eventually add up.
Ten — Beautiful: LaMelo Ball just oozes fun on the basketball court. Ball is already an elite passer, and he makes the types of reads that require equal parts genius and imagination to execute. There’s a beauty and exhilaration in the way he plays, and his awkwardness only adds to the effect. Ball takes running floaters off one leg, and he jacks up shots from 30-feet out, which aren’t necessarily shots that anyone would recommend but it works for him. He doesn’t fit the trend of modern point guards who are mostly glorified shooting guards, but that makes Ball’s game all the more refreshing. He must be a joy to play with.
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