The Toronto Raptors (16-11) are no stranger to close games in which things go a little haywire and small moments and decisions quickly loom large. But even still, I can’t recall a late game scenario like the one that presented itself on the club’s would-be game winner, as a Cory Joseph steal with two seconds remaining in a 90-90 game appeared to turn into a go-ahead basket by DeMar DeRozan. Appearances, however, can be deceiving, as the play was ruled to be whistled dead after Dwane Casey and Kyle Lowry had both tried to call immediate timeouts after the steal.
After the game-winner-that-wasn’t, the Raps, left with less time on the clock than they feel they were owed, couldn’t capitalize on a last chance opportunity as Kyle Lowry missed a three at the buzzer of regulation. From there, a PJ Hairston three-pointer put the Charlotte Hornets up for good in the overtime period. In the final minutes of OT, Charlotte shut the door on a Raptors’ rally with some stifling defense and a perfect 8-8 free throw performance to put the game away.
On top of a strange finish, Thursday’s 109-99 loss to the Hornets carried a turn-back-the-clock vibe thanks to a standout performance from newly inserted Charlotte starter Jeremy “Linsanity” Lin. Making his second start for Charlotte thanks to an injury to Nicolas Batum, Lin led all scorers with 35 points on 13-22 shooting, his biggest offensive outburst since exploding for 38 points for the Houston Rockets in a December 2012 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. DeRozan led the Raps with 31 points on 12-25 shooting, but the visitors were weighed down heavily by Lowry’s shameless 6-29 shooting performance.
Biz comes back to Charlotte
Bismack Biyombo made the most of his return to Charlotte, the city where he spent the first four seasons of his NBA career. Without doing much offensively (he scored eight points on 2-4 shooting), Biyombo made his mark by posting career-highs with 18 rebounds and seven blocked shots before fouling out after playing a season-high 39:55 minutes. While Charlotte didn’t actually draft Biyombo, they did acquire the 2011 seventh overall selection in a three-team, eight-player Draft night trade, shipping out Tobias Harris, Stephen Jackson and Shaun Livingston in the deal.
Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson didn’t have their best offensive nights against the Hornets, going 1-7 and 1-8, respectively, while missing all eight three-point attempts made between them (to be fair, Patterson missed seven of them). Still, their 13 combined misses were 10 less than the 23 that Lowry, himself, was responsible for on Thursday night. While many of those shots were knowingly low percentage attempts made in a desperate bid to keep Toronto in the game (he did, after all, wind up with 13 fourth quarter points), the most brazen shot-happy game of his career directly contributed to the Raps’ 36.1% (35-97) shooting night, as well as their 23.1% (9-39) effort from three-point range, where Lowry went 3-17.
The Joseph steal late in regulation was the biggest example of Toronto doing what they could to earn every opportunity possible, also pulling down nine offensive rebounds to Charlotte’s six and forcing 13 turnovers while allowing just eight of their own. Unfortunately, they just weren’t able to make the most of the opportunities presented as did their hosts. Charlotte managed to make more field goals, three-pointers and free throws than their opponents despite taking less attempts in each of the three categories. In the final 90 seconds of overtime, the Hornets scored 13 points by making both field goal attempts and connecting on all eight free throws, while Toronto managed just three by going 1-5 from the floor.
Former Raptor Tyler Hansbrough got into Thursday’s game for just over eight minutes of playing time, largely thanks to the absence of Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and, most significantly, Al Jefferson, who is currently serving an injury-delayed drug suspension. Overall, however, Hansbrough hasn’t found his way into the Hornets’ regular rotation and it doesn’t seem like a window is forthcoming with Jefferson’s return to the lineup four games away. On the plus side, he does contribute nicely to Charlotte’s impressive collection of big white guys, one that also includes Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes.
They boast some interesting names and have amassed a nice collection of talent, but the Hornets will only go as far as Kemba Walker and head coach Steve Clifford will take them. Walker is really the only guy with the potential to be a game breaker (unless, that is, Hairston can make a major leap), with guys like Batum and MKG being better suited as supporting players and Big Al getting older and sporting an already spotty injury history. Clifford, meanwhile, has quietly been hugely successful in implementing a defensive system that has kept the club in the bottom third of opponent’s points allowed in each of his three seasons on the bench.
The Raps can thank the NBA scheduling gods for another tough back-to-back that sees them head to Miami for a visit tonight against the Heat (8:00pm, TSN). When Toronto last visited Miami, they wound up on the receiving end of their worst defeat – a 96-76 loss – of the season to date.
Prediction: Heat 101, Raps 90 (record this season: 13-13)