For stretches last night, it looked like all of the positive process improvements we saw from the Toronto Raptors out West were paying off. The ball was singing around the perimeter, three pointers were falling, the transition game was humming.
But once again, the Raptors couldn’t keep things together for 48 minutes. They beat the Charlotte Hornets 111-108, but a near-disastrous fourth quarter surely hasn’t left anyone feeling very good this morning.
The Raptors shot the heck out of the ball last night through three quarters, and while the process looked good — they had 26 assists on 33 made field goals through three — the lack of pressure on the rim left me concerned heading into the fourth. If Charlotte could tighten the screws a little bit, if the shooting variance came back down to earth, it was gonna be problematic.
And so it was. The Raptors could not generate good shots at all for the first six minutes or so of the period, and then when they did get good looks, they just weren’t dropping. Only some impressive offensive rebounding (nine in the quarter) allowed them to maintain their lead.
Neither the shooting nor the offensive rebounding is sustainable. Combined with a poor defensive performance, with slow closeouts that allowed the Hornets to both shoot a high percentage (43%) from downtown and get LaMelo Ball operating in space (11 assists), and well, it very nearly ended up in another blown lead (18 points) — especially when a defensive breakdown on the Hornets’ final possession left Mikal Bridges wide-open from downtown.
Consistent play for 48 minutes at either end continues to elude this team, and their record is probably about right because of it.
2. Kyle Lowry + Bench, Forever and Always
To say the Raptors’ bench play has been inconsistent this year would be generous, but they looked great in the first half last night, to the tune of 34 points, 16 of which came from Chris Boucher.
Naturally, the man leading that charge was not a bench player at all, but Kyle Lowry. Lowry+Bench units have been a Raptors staple for years, but this year, the chemistry hasn’t quite materialized.
Perhaps last night was the start of something? Kyle played extended minutes with Chris Boucher, Norman Powell, Yuta Watanabe and Stanley Johnson; Powell in particular looked great during this stretch (maybe it’s not the starting that matters with Norm, but being on the court with Kyle), Watanabe was flying all over the place, and Stanley, well, he’s gonna get his own thought.
Now, this same lineup did not fare as well in the second half; it started the fourth quarter and gave up a 7-0 run in 2.5 minutes, prompting Nick Nurse to bring the starters in to finish things. But for a little while, it was a joy to watch.
3. Stanley Johnson’s Found His Role
Stanley Johnson’s been an athlete with talent in search of a role for years; apparently, in his second year in Toronto, Nick Nurse figured out he’s a wing-defending small-ball center?
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) January 15, 2021
I don’t know if it’s sustainable (there’s that word again) but Stanley has indeed looked good in what one might call the Robert Covington role (or, perhaps, the Rondae Hollis-Jefferson role?). He’s defending both bigs and wings, and sitting in the dunker spot on the other end — except when he’s breaking down the zone by flashing into the middle or, you know, hitting step-back three pointers with the clock winding down.
It’s still an absolute adventure any time he puts the ball on the floor, but for the most part Stanley looks like he fits out there. It’s… really nice to see?
4. Chris and Kyle and Chemistry
Speaking of things that are nice to see, I am loving the developing chemistry between Kyle Lowry and Chris Boucher. For the past two seasons it seemed like anytime the Raptors needed to simply settle down, execute something simple and generate a good look, they just needed to run a Lowry-Serge Ibaka pick-and-roll. Now, it’s Lowry and Boucher.
It was evident in the first quarter last night, as we saw a beautiful slip pass from KL to a rolling Boucher that resulting in two free throws. But it was most on display in the fourth; with the Raptors desperate for buckets, Lowry did what he could to break the defense down, finding Boucher twice on his way to the hoop:
Watching Boucher transform into a key player has probably been the best part of the season so far.
5. Dear Aron, You Can Catch Me. Signed, the Basketball
Aron Baynes played 7.5 minutes last night, and officially tallied one (1) rebound. That’s a rather low number for a 7-footer, to be sure, but it might be because seems to prefer volleyball to basketball.
I counted four rebounds and one loose ball that Aron simply punched or tapped or otherwise batted into the air in those seven minutes, rather than simply… catching them. And he didn’t bat them to himself a la Rodman, or to teammates a la Russell, he just… whacked them indiscriminately.
The stone hands jokes write themselves, really, but if you want to laugh and/or cry, just search “Aron Baynes hands” on Twitter, something I clearly should have done before writing my giant pre-season profile on Baynes that didn’t mention his hands of stone even once.
Huge oversight on my part.
A win is a win but I was hoping we’d see more that would lead us to believe the Raptors have turned a corner. We didn’t get that last night — but we’ll get another chance against the same team tomorrow.