Toronto (44-17) continue to hide from Boston atop the Eastern Conference as the teams have created separation from Central Division leaders Cleveland. The Raptors extended their winning streak to three games Friday night with a 102-95 victory at Washington, sweeping a two-game road swing.
DeMar DeRozan scored 23 points but C. J. Miles hit three of his six 3-pointers and scored 11 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter as Toronto’s vaunted bench mob outscored Washington’s reserves 50-14.
Charlotte’s bid to make a push to contend for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference appears to have stalled with back-to-back losses. The Hornets (28-35) are trying to salvage the final game of a three-game road swing against Atlantic Division opponents after falling 110-99 at Philadelphia on Friday night.
Kemba Walker scored 31 points and Nicolas Batum finished two assists shy of a triple-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds, but they got little help beyond Frank Kaminsky’s 19 points off the bench as the Hornets were outscored 17-5 in the final 4:58 and went scoreless in the last 2:16.
Three keys to the game
A different game, a different bench hero - The Raptors may not be the best team in the NBA, but they have arguably the best second five in the league as any of Dwane Casey's reserves can step up and deliver. The bench has scored at least 50 points in every game during their current three-game winning streak while shooting 50.4 percent.
No coffee for Charlotte because they didn't close - The Hornets were an absolute mess in the final two minutes of Friday night's game, missing their last four shots, committing a turnover and getting whistled for two technical fouls, including one on coach Steve Clifford in the closing seconds. For a team that had described themselves as in "desperation mode" as they tried to cut into a four-game deficit to Miami for eighth in the East, it was a discouraging performance in crunch time.
Raptors going for the season sweep - Toronto have been ruthlessly efficient in winning the first three games between the teams this season, averaging 126.0 points while shooting a torrid 47.1 percent from 3-point range and 54.3 percent overall. The Raptors have never swept a four-game series from the Hornets in franchise history, though they took all three from them in the 2006/07 season.
Matchup to watch
SG Nicolas Batum vs SG DeMar DeRozan - It's a good thing Batum is coming off one of his better games of the season because DeRozan has put him through the grindhouse in all three meetings. The Raptors guard had 25 points and eight assists in the most recent matchup while helping hound Batum into missing all ten of his shots from the field while holding him to two points.
It was more of the same in the 129-111 Raptors victory at Charlotte on December 20 as DeRozan had 28 points and eight assists while Batum took only one shot and deferred to Jeremy Lamb as he scored 32 points to keep things interesting.
In the first meeting, Batum had ten points, but DeRozan torched him for 30 on 14-of-22 shooting as Toronto won 126-113 on November 29.
Charlotte Hornets projected starting lineup
PG - Kemba Walker | SG - Nicolas Batum | C - Dwight Howard | SF - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | PF - Marvin Williams
Toronto Raptors projected starting lineup
PG - Kyle Lowry | SG - DeMar DeRozan | C - Jonas Valanciunas | SF - Norman Powell | PF - Serge Ibaka
DeRozan has shot 60.7 percent in the three wins over Charlotte this season and he also has shown surprising proficiency from beyond the arc, hitting six of 12. He also has recorded 22 assists and has averaged 19.2 points in 30 career matchups with the Hornets.
Lowry drilled eight of 11 3-pointers in the first meeting en route to 36 points but has been more of a distributor in the other two victories, totaling 23 points and 15 assists with only three turnovers while making seven of 14 from beyond the arc. He has averaged 14.1 points and 5.1 assists in 31 career contests with Charlotte.
Walker missed the first game between the teams due to injury but has averaged 19.0 points and 5.5 assists in the last two. He averaged 28.8 points in the four games last season and has scored 18.8 per game over 21 contests versus the Raptors while averaging 5.4 assists.
Hornets center Dwight Howard is one rebound shy of having double-doubles in all three games this season, averaging 18.0 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 64.5 percent from the field and more impressively, 77.8 percent from the foul line. He has averaged 20.1 points and 11.7 rebounds over 39 career contests against the Raptors, posting 25 double-doubles over his storied career.
The Raptors are nine-point favorites and they have a bevy of positive trends in their direction, including covering in their last six Sunday games. Toronto are also 9-2 against the spread in their last 11 games and have covered in their last four home games when facing an opponent with a road winning percentage below .400.
They are also trying to extend a trend in which the favorites have covered in seven of the last nine meetings. Toronto have also covered in nine of their last 12 matchups against Southeast Division teams.
The Hornets have covered in 13 of their last 18 visits north of the border which is one of the few trends in their direction. They have covered just once in their last eight road games and have failed to cover in their last five games following a straight up loss.
Charlotte are also 1-6-1 against the spread in their last eight road games against opponents with a winning home record and 1-7-1 versus the number in their last nine against teams with a winning percentage above .600.
The over/under has inched one-half point higher to 219, and the over has hit in the last four meetings. The over is 3-1-1 in Charlotte's last five games and has hit in the last four games when they have faced a team with a winning record. The under, though, has been a strong play for Toronto at home against the league's lightweights, going 10-3-1 in the last 14 games against teams with a losing road record and 7-1-1 in the last nine when that team's road winning percentage is sub-.400.
There is something about the Hornets that bring out the best in the Raptors offense for everybody on that team. Everything about the three wins has been impressive, from racking up 94 assists to hitting at least 14 3-pointers in each game to making at least 49 field goals in all three games. There have been 15 double-digit scorers in the three victories.
So what can the Hornets do? For starters, getting Batum in any offensive flow would be optimal. If that doesn't happen early, Clifford may have to bite the bullet and insert Lamb early to try to shake his team up. This is a vital game for the Hornets, who really can't afford the negativity that would come with an empty three-game road swing in which their defense has let Boston and Philadelphia shoot a combined 56.5 percent in the first two legs.
Unfortunately for them, that is what will happen because they are running into a Raptors buzz-saw and Toronto should roll to a 121-102 victory.
The game will be televised nationally in Canada on TSN and locally on Fox Sports Southeast - Charlotte. Tip-off time is 6 pm EST.
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