TORONTO — Comfort hasn’t been a very easy thing for the Toronto Raptors to find on the basketball court this season, but seeing the Charlotte Hornets for the second time in as many days and, if you include pre-season, the fourth time already this year has to make the teal and white pinstripes of their uniforms a rather welcoming sight.
Particularly because whenever the Raptors see the Hornets, all they seem to do is win.
Thanks to a three-point shooting clinic, Toronto once again edged Charlotte 116-113 Saturday night, their fourth consecutive victory over the Hornets this season, including the two exhibition wins.
Not only was the win an important one, as it improves the Raptors to a 4-8 record on the season, but it’s also an encouraging sign that they may just be able to turn things around after a poor start.
Playing the second game of a five-game home-stand, the Raptors have appeared to build on a number of positive indicators from what, on paper, looked like a poor 1-3 Western Conference road trip.
Most notably, the benefits that playing small provide.
A few hours before Toronto and Charlotte tipped off, there was word that Raptors backup centre Alex Len, who missed the last game for “personal reasons,” would be forced to miss Saturday’s contest due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
The Raptors weren’t able to provide much more information about Len’s circumstances, but his absence made it pretty easy to predict that there would be more opportunity for the team to play small.
“There wasn’t a lot of separation between [Len] and Aron [Baynes] at this time, so it was a little bit of a juggling match, but now I know — we’re gonna play Aron, we’re gonna try to get some extended minutes out of him,” head coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “I know we’re not getting very much out of him at this point. We read the game, you know. He’s almost like a reserve now. His stint is going to last as long as things are going well, or he’s impacting well.”
Based on how Baynes was used Saturday, it doesn’t look like things are going very well for him as he only played four minutes — all at the start of the game — in which Toronto’s offence looked decidedly sluggish, forcing Nurse to take a timeout down 12-2 with 7:40 left to play in the first quarter.
Coming out of that timeout, Baynes wasn’t to be seen again and Chris Boucher was inserted as the team’s main centre, sparking a 29-15 run to close out the opening frame, resulting in a 31-27 lead.
The spark that inserting Boucher into the game for Baynes created, as well as playing smaller and faster, proved infectious for the rest of the team, particularly from three-point range where they went 13-for-26 in the first half with many of those looks coming in transition and semi-transition.
The prowess the Raptors showed from deep Saturday was directly correlated to the team playing small and appeared to unlock the bench, particularly.
With Baynes getting the start, Norman Powell came off the bench and was strong, scoring a season-high 24 points, including a 6-for-9 mark from beyond the arc.
“Obviously he gets started early with a couple of shots falling, guys found him. Obviously, that puts a pretty good pep in his step,” said Nurse after the game. “I thought he was solid defensively. He was creating a little bit too. They were rushing out to him, he was driving into the paint, getting fouls and things like that, that has a lot to do with it.
“I know 24’s a big night, we know he’s capable of that, that’s what we need, we need his punch, 15 or so off the bench. We’re gonna need that offence, keep the offence ticking over with the second unit, etc.”
Additionally, Boucher, as has become increasingly expected with every passing game, had himself another solid night with a line of 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
In total, Toronto’s bench — which came into Saturday’s match averaging just 34.9 points per game — went off for 55 points (31 alone in the first half). This is a sign that Toronto’s much-maligned bench unit might be rounding into form.
“I think we’re starting to just understand what we have to do. I think guys are starting to get a little bit more comfortable with the flow of the game — offensively, defensively — what we need to continue to execute out there,” said Powell of Toronto’s bench. “I think that guys are starting to find their way throughout the season. It’s always trying to build up and you’re not gonna be perfect. Early on you try to build and go for the long haul and I think we’re starting to do that.”
To add to his big night, Powell drilled a three at the top of the key with 4:45 left in the third quarter to pull the Raptors within one point. That, in turn, allowed them to take the lead the next possession on a pair of Fred VanVleet free throws, sparking a 12-7 run that saw them enter the fourth quarter with an 88-87 lead.
In the final period, it was a back-and-forth affair until Kyle Lowry, who looked to have a small injury scare at the end of the third — he initially had a small limp but looked fine afterwards — drilled a triple from the right-centre area with 7:24 to play, giving the Raptors a 98-96 lead and forcing Charlotte to take a timeout.
The Hornets would manage to tie the game twice the rest of the way, including getting it evened up with under a minute to play, but that was as close as they got as Toronto managed to squeeze by them once again.
“We are getting a lot of practice at our end-of-game strategies,” Nurse said of the two tight victories the Raptors have had over Charlotte in their last two games. “There is really no way to re-create those in practice so every night out we are getting seven or eight situations at both ends of the floor to work on.”
It didn’t come easy, and the Raptors very nearly shot themselves in the foot turning the ball over 15 times for 23 Hornets points — and also of concern was the poor play of Pascal Siakam, who had just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting — but in the end they managed another important win and will have a little bit of momentum to help find the same comfort they appear to have found against Charlotte versus the rest of the league.