Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 116-113 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
One — Nail-biter: Everything has been unnecessarily difficult for the Raptors this season, and often they have been on the wrong end of close calls. It was trending that way tonight. Even a four-point lead with 13 seconds left wasn’t safe, as the Hornets just kept bombing ridiculous threes to set up a third collapse to follow Golden State and Portland. Thankfully, the Raptors came away unscathed, but it was not for a lack of trying. The Raptors are playing hard and the talent is there, but they are making too many mistakes and it’s costing them. They got away with it tonight, and now they have their first two-game win streak of the season.
Two — Clutch: Nick Nurse made an inspired call in the final minute by pulling Stanley Johnson off the bench to defend a two-point lead with 29 seconds left. Johnson subbed in for Chris Boucher, which gave the Raptors five wing defenders who can switch, which helped neutralize what the Hornets do best. Johnson navigated two switches at the top of the floor, and settled on Devonte’ Graham who slipped and mustered an airball. On the final possession, Johnson returned once again and delivered a clutch closeout against Terry Rozier, who was open for just a sliver of a second to launch the game-tying shot. Johnson came as close as possible to the shooter without fouling, and forced a second airball in the process. Johnson’s redemption from being ignored and shunned last season to being called upon in clutch moments is one of the best (and only) stories of the season.
End of game set and this is great awareness from STANLEY JOHNSON (my bad). Waits for all the initial screens to get set, guarding Biyombo up 3 once everything clears he darts out at Rozier as he comes off to contest... pic.twitter.com/3nr7zEduuw
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 17, 2021
Three — Confidence: Kyle Lowry tacked another clutch basket to a long resume of game-winning plays. Lowry yanked the Raptors by the collar and supplied a drive into two free throws, and another stepback dagger over Gordon Hayward to keep the lead. The Raptors’ crunch time offense has been poor this season, resulting in a handful of bitter losses, and it was vital for Lowry to take control when he did. It’s not always going to work, but Lowry’s heroics were enough tonight.
Four — Empty: Pascal Siakam needed to better. The Hornets stayed in zone coverage for most of the night which limited Siakam’s drives, and he’s not particularly willing to take the three at the moment, which left Siakam as a bystander for most of the game. But there are no excuses as a No. 1 option, and Siakam can’t allow a simple zone defense to freeze him out entirely. Siakam tried to take over in the fourth after stretching inside for a layup, but proceeded to throw up two misses from midrange after taking way too many dribbles, before retreating into the background. Siakam’s defense was good and his passing was solid at times, but that’s just not enough.
Five — Launch: The Raptors’ answer to Charlotte’s zone defense was to relentlessly hoist threes, as 49 of their 82 field-goal attempts originated beyond the arc. Nurse made a particular point of setting up shooters in the corners, whether it was off crisp drive-and-kick sequences, or by screening to get shooters open. The Raptors started off slow, missing their first five threes and had just two points in the first six minutes, but they stayed falling eventually. Although the Hornets nearly scored the win, it’s not advisable to deploy zone against the Raptors for extended stretches, as the Raptors are a perimeter-oriented team that excels more from the perimeter than they do around the rim. Aside from keeping Siakam in a bind, it really wasn’t worth it for the Hornets.
Six — Fire: Norman Powell had his best game of the season, scoring 24 points on six threes and six foul shots. Powell was the biggest beneficiary of the zone, as the Raptors often looked for him in transition and off swing sequences, and Powell didn’t hesitate. Powell is back to shooting over 40 percent from three on the season, and it’s really just the efficiency on his drives that has yet to carry over from last season. He’s 44 percent from within three feet this season as compared to 62 percent on his career, and it’s a good bet that Powell’s numbers will rise along with his efficiency. Powell still makes a number of head-scratching plays, such as his 30-foot heave before halftime which not only was a bad shot but it was so early in the clock that it left enough time for Terry Rozier to respond with a three, but those mistakes can be ignored if Powell delivers this type of efficient scoring.
Seven — Small: Rebounding was a major concern down the stretch, as Charlotte collected two key offensive rebounds leading to two threes to keep them alive in the fourth quarter. The Hornets aren’t even that big of a team, but it took at least three Raptors to keep Bismack Biyombo off the glass for most of the night and even still the levy broke towards the end. This is just a symptom of playing with an undersized center in Chris Boucher, with no bigs behind him in the rotation, while still heavily emphasizing transition scoring. The Raptors need to gang rebound on every play just to finish possessions, especially towards the end of games when opposing teams are looking to exploit every advantage.
Eight — Nerves: The NBA game seems a bit too fast for Malachi Flynn at the moment. The rookie had some nice moments, including a three, a steal, and some clever passes, but the overall impression is that Flynn just isn’t that comfortable. He’s rushing when he doesn’t need to, such as sprinting into a midrange shot on a defensive breakdown that left him wide-open for three, while also being overly conservative on plays where he should press the issue to create a look for his teammates. So much of basketball comes down to making the right read ahead of the defense, and Flynn is lagging in that regard.
Nine — Empty: Nurse is doing Aron Baynes a solid by sticking with him in spite of the results, but every appearance by Baynes just further reinforces why he’s on the bench. Baynes had a promising first minute, forcing two turnovers by pressuring the ball and setting a firm screen to create an open three, but it was all downhill from there. He just looks too slow for what the Raptors are trying to achieve and he’s such a minus offensively that it leaves the Raptors playing four-on-five. Baynes bricked an open corner three and tried to sneak in baseline after a nice find by OG Anunoby, except he was unable to get the ball up to the rim for a layup before the defense converged on him. It’s not a coincidence that the Raptors scored just two points in the first six minutes to start the game. Baynes shouldn’t be out there at all right now.
Ten — Curious: If the Raptors are going to rely so heavily on the three, then a sharpshooter like Matt Thomas should get another chance to crack the rotation. Thomas could get Flynn’s minutes as the ninth man and provide a similar skillset with his ability to handle and hit on catch-and-shoot threes. It’s not really a make-or-break type of decision, it’s just a thought.
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