For a little while this season, the Toronto Raptors were playing beautiful basketball and coming up just short. They were coming away with so-called moral victories, but unable to close out games when things got tight.
Things have now flipped. For the second consecutive night, the Raptors have done everything in their power to lose to the inferior Charlotte Hornets, but thanks to a vintage Kyle Lowry step-back jumper with under a minute to go in the game Saturday, Toronto once again staved off a Hornets comeback to clinch a 116-113 victory in Amalie Arena.
If Raptors coach Nick Nurse had his way, the Raptors would win every game by 40 points, he said.
"I’d like to win each quarter 30-20," he said jokingly. "I’d much prefer that."
But after watching his team squander double-digit leads repeatedly to start the season then miss perfectly designed last seconds shots in the final two games of their West Coast road trip, any win is a good win for the 4-8 Raptors.
It was another night of inconsistent offence from the Raptors. On the whole, they shot a pedestrian just 36-for-86 from the field and went extended stretches without scoring.
"We’re thinking too much," OG Anunoby said.
It didn't help that the Hornets once again threw a mix of man-to-man and zone defences at Toronto. It was a holdover defensive scheme from Thursday night's gameplan for the Hornets. After watching the Raptors light up the scoreboard for three quarters, Charlotte decided to start defending Toronto with a zone. It worked brilliantly for the Hornets who allowed just 12 points to the Raptors in the fourth quarter.
"They go in and out of zone, switch to man, so sometimes it’s kind of confusing when we’re trying to run out offence," Anunoby said.
It did, however, allow Norman Powell to get back to his old ways. Nurse said he figured the Hornets defence would be a golden opportunity for Powell to get on track and the 27-year-old guard didn't disappoint. He tallied a team-high 24 points thanks to six 3-pointers.
"I think it benefits me," Powell said of the Hornets' zone defence. "I feel like I’ve been able to shoot it really well with a great consistency from 3. So I think that when they’re in zone and I’m being able to knock down the outside shot it just opens up the closeout hard and then I can take them off the dribble, attacking the rim, looking for kickouts, being that playmaker outside of the zone. So if I’m hitting shots and being able to get to my bread and butter of attacking and getting into the paint I think it’s very worth it for me to be able to playmake and scramble the defence."
Even with five players in double figures, the Raptors couldn't pull away. They watched a nine-point fourth-quarter lead vanish in the final five minutes. It meant Toronto was going to have to turn to Lowry to create some offence on his own.
He did exactly that, drawing the switch against Gordon Hayward and nailing the go-ahead jumper to put Toronto up two. The Hornets mustered one final comeback, cutting Toronto's lead to just one with 7.5 seconds remaining, but Chris Boucher nailed his clutch free throws and the Raptors survived to clinch another one-possession victory.
"Well, we are getting a lot of practice at our end-of-game strategies," Nurse said. "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."
Aron Baynes once again got the start for Toronto, but again his starting stint didn't last long. After a 12-2 start for the Hornets, Nurse decided to give Boucher a shot. Again, Baynes never saw the court again, playing just over four minutes on the night.
Alex Len Out
The Toronto Raptors were without centre Alex Len who was out because of the NBA's "health and safety protocols." It was his second straight missed game after being listed as out for "personal reasons" on Thursday.
"I'm not really allowed to comment on those situations," Nurse said prior to the game. "He is out as you know because of the protocols, and that's really all the info that I can give you."
Up Next: Dallas Mavericks
The Raptors will welcome Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis to town at 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday for their first date with the Dallas Mavericks this season.