'Experiment' with Raptors bench provides boost in much-needed win over Hornets

With the Raptors running out of options to turn their season around, it was a unique blend of size off their bench that helped propel them forward.

A bench “experiment” by head coach Nick Nurse helped bring new life to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, as they came away with a 132-120 win against the Charlotte Hornets.

It was a lineup featuring Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and Christian Koloko — all listed as centres — that gave the team a second burst of energy, helping maintain and build on leads in the second and fourth quarters, respectively. The trio scored 31 of the Raptors’ 40 points off the bench to go along with 17 rebounds.

It was a much-needed boost considering the Raptors’ bench averaged a league-worst 13.4 points over the last five games, while for the season they’ve been amid the bottom five in scoring production.

“I'm just trying to come up with a solution after we had such a rough stretch,” said Nurse post-game.

Precious Achiuwa gave the Raptors a big lift off the bench on Tuesday. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Precious Achiuwa gave the Raptors a big lift off the bench on Tuesday. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Raptors' head coach notes he’s not sure how long this experiment will last, but it did provide a much-needed rest for his starters to try and give them a “chance to regroup and have some juice left at the end.”

He accomplished just that, as the Raptors' starters finished the game to close out the Hornets. Fuelling the win were also season-highs for made three-pointers (20) and assists (32), as no Raptor eclipsed 36 minutes — a rare feat throughout the 2022-23 campaign.

"I think it’s all about trust and rhythm,” said Achiuwa post-game. “Once the bench finds their rhythm like they did today … a lot of guys don’t have to overdo stuff, don’t have to put a lot of pressure on their bodies or minutes. You know that guys that will do the same thing as the starters when they come out the game.”

The trio of Boucher, Koloko and Achiuwa provided a unique defensive look for Toronto, using a zone defence to disrupt the Hornets. They also crashed the paint, combining for eight of the Raptors’ 18 offensive rebounds — the fourth most they’ve had all season.

Lineups that have featured the trio over the course of the season have now posted a plus-17 differential, while shooting 54 percent from the field to go with a 125.5 offensive rating and 95.9 defensive rating. That’s come in a small sample size of 26 minutes, with eight of those coming on Tuesday.

“Those guys seem to generate a lot of our offensive rebounding energy. Then it kind of spreads,” said Nurse.

Leader Fred VanVleet also applauded the effort, as he finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and just over 32 minutes — the sixth fewest he’s logged all season. The bench performance also comes amid the news that Otto Porter Jr. will be out for the rest of the season, having only played eight games after being touted as the Raptors’ biggest move of the offseason.

“We need to keep growing that group and keep getting them experience playing together and get them more flow. I thought that they did a great job,” VanVleet said of the trio. “The better they play, well, you know, the more leash they'll get.”

Achiuwa is still getting back in his rhythm after being injured for 24 games from November to the end of 2022. He started off “shaky” after first entering the game in the second quarter, but was able to settle in for 11 points in the frame, which included three three-pointers and a jam through the paint.

“Just like everybody, he’s gonna make mistakes, and it's nice to let him play through some and show what he can do,” said Nurse.

The Raptors’ main core also pulled their weight and led the scoring charge.

O.G. Anunoby finished with 22 points on 6-of-7 shooting from three-point distance, Siakam had 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while Gary Trent Jr. also dropped 24 points on 4-of-10 shooting from long range. Scottie Barnes finished with seven points and seven assists, but perhaps provided the play of the night with a slam on Mason Plumlee.

The Hornets didn’t make it easy for the Raptors. After Toronto held a lead for much of the second and third quarters, Charlotte finished the third frame on a 13-6 run.

The Hornets' play was fuelled by their backcourt duo of LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier, who finished with 24 points and 14 assists, and 33 points on 14-19 shooting, respectively. As a team, they shot 54.7 percent from the field and 42 percent from three, while only having nine turnovers.

Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said post game it was their inability to control the Raptors on the glass that proved to be the difference.

"Defensive mindset and particularly the physicality on the glass you know, which is what [the Raptors are] great at," said Clifford. "You let a good team like that play to their strengths, which has happened right from the start of the game all the way through, it's gonna be hard to win."

Nurse says his team had to basically outscore the Hornets to come away with the win, knowing Charlotte is going to run up the scoreboard with its fast pace. But, like all season, Nurse was looking for the Raptors to hold down their defensive intensity as part of their identity. It paid off in the fourth quarter, with the Raptors forcing the Hornets into six straight missed shots.

“When we can put together a string of consecutive stops, it will make the difference in the game and that really was what happened,” said Nurse.

The win now gives the Raptors an 18-23 record, which is their worst through a halfway mark of a season since the 2012-13 campaign. They’ve yet to win three straight games, but they’ll look to do so on Thursday against the same Hornets squad, which sits in second-last place in the Eastern Conference with a 11-31 record.

Time is running out for the Raptors to make a second-half push, similar to the one they made last year to wind up in the playoffs. But players aren’t losing hope. VanVleet wants to put the first half behind the team, while Achiuwa sees encouraging signs as he looks through the locker room.

"I think we have a really, really good team. Obviously, we're not where we want to be right now. But I mean, there’s no one in the locker room hanging their heads or pouting," said the third-year centre. "I'm very confident in this team. I believe we showed it last year.

"I don’t think there’s anything stopping us from going on a crazy run right now. We just have to lock in."

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