The resilient and resourceful Toronto Raptors could not find a way to win on Friday.
The NBA defending champions were depleted by injuries, they shot poorly, trailed almost all night, and got beat badly on the glass, resulting in a 99-96 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
It’s the second loss in a row for the Raptors (42-17), who embark on a lengthy trip.
Kyle Lowry scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter as he spearheaded a Raps’ rally that fell just short. Pascal Siakam had 24 points, while Norman Powell had 22 and OG Anunoby had 16.
Friday’s atmosphere inside Scotiabank Arena was sleepy compared to the electric vibe of Tuesday night when the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks visited. The Hornets (21-38), have no superstars and sit two spots outside of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto was light on star power Friday night. Spanish big man Marc Gasol was missing his 12th successive game because of that lingering tight hamstring. In the hours before the game, the Raps said they would be missing two more starters who were experiencing soreness: Fred VanVleet (left shoulder) and Serge Ibaka (right knee).
They were lucky that Powell was ready to return after an eight-game hiatus because of a fracture in his left hand. They got Patrick McCaw back, too. He missed three games with the flu.
Nick Nurse, who has repeatedly shown a flair for creative lineups, turned to his 14th combination of starters this season. With VanVleet out, Kyle Lowry assumed the point-guard duties and Norman Powell began at the shooting guard. OG Anunoby started at small forward with Pascal Siakam at power forward. Very short on big men at the centre position, Nurse called on 6-foot-9 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to start in the 5-spot, ready to tangle with former Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo.
“He’s really versatile defensively for us. He’s undersized but he’s strong. He works and he gets physical and all that stuff,” Nurse said about using Hollis-Jefferson (four points, nine rebounds) at centre. “He and Chris [Boucher] are really our only fives left. And then I guess we’ll go to Pascal next, OG maybe.”
The shooting woes that plagued Toronto in its Tuesday loss to Milwaukee persisted on Friday. The Raptors shot a shaky 32 per cent in the opening quarter. The most glaring misses came from Siakam, who made just two of his nine first-quarter attempts. Toronto trailed Charlotte 25-23 heading into the second.
The Raptors shooting got worse in a sloppy second quarter – a frightening 22.2 per cent – and they were being badly out-rebounded too, as they slipped behind by 17. Even their free-throw shooting was lousy. They called shooting specialist Matt Thomas off the bench, and even he misfired on three of his four field-goal attempts before halftime. The home team straggled behind by nine points at the break.
The Raptors started to show some glimpses of their identity in the third quarter as they battled to within five points. Lowry made a deep three, Anunoby was creating steals and Hollis-Jefferson was nabbing rebounds. Powell was rolling to the rim and crafted a slick behind-the-back pass to Siakam, who woke the crowd with a dunk. The Cameroonian all-star scored 14 points in the quarter and the Raps were within seven going into the fourth.
Nurse rode the starters for heavy minutes since he didn’t think he was getting much out of his usual spark-inducing reserves like Thomas and Terence Davis.
They flirted with the lead for much of the fourth before a Lowry three-ball put them up 90-89 with 2:50 left in the game. When Charlotte wrestled back the lead, the six-time all-star hit another a minute later, then a driving layup too.
Things got hectic in the final minute, and Powell and Lowry both missed game-winning attempts. Hollis-Jefferson was slapped with an away-from-the-play foul in the final two seconds as he stepped in the path of Rozier, who fell trying to get open for an inbounds pass. That put Terry Rozier on the free throw line to sink the game winner as fans booed and yelled “ref you suck”.
“Obviously, we didn’t make shots. Missing everything. Layups, free throws, I mean, the list goes on. Threes. At the same time, we still put ourselves with a chance to be in the game and have an opportunity to win,” said Siakam. “Questionable calls down there, I don’t know, missed assignments, I don’t know what happened or whatever, but at the same time it’s one of those games. But we still put ourselves in a position to win. A couple of shots go in, it’s a different game.”
Charlotte out-rebounded Toronto 58-45. Devonte’ Graham and Rozier each had 18 points for Charlotte, leading a group of five Hornets in double digits including Biyombo, who had 13 with 11 rebounds.
Now the Raptors begin a 10-day West Coast trip with games in Denver, Phoenix, Golden State, Sacramento and Utah. They return to Scotiabank Arena on March 14 against the Detroit Pistons.
“Everybody’s going on the trip,” said Nurse. “We’re hoping at some point on the trip most of those [injured] guys get back.”
Lowry thought it would be good for the team to get away.
“We’ve got a game every other day for two games and then we’ve got four days off and that’ll help us to get some rhythm and get some rest and get dinner together,” said Lowry. “Everyone just kind of getting away from home and focusing on just basketball.”