Friday night's game in Charlotte was the first for Roy Hibbert as a Hornet, making his first appearance back from injury. It was also the first career start for rookie Treveon Graham. Graham took over for the injured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
There were a lot of runs in this game, some were big, some were not. Right off the bat, the Raptors jumped out to a 4-0 lead before Kemba Walker evened it up at 4-4. Then Graham hit his first career basket to give Charlotte their first lead of the night, helping to spark a 9-0 run by the Hornets. The game slowed a bit after that, 14-10 Hornets lead at the 5:58 mark when Hibbert was subbed in for Cody Zeller. Pregame, it was said that the plan for Steve Clifford was to get Hibbert about 12-14 minutes against Toronto.
The minutes may have been limited for Hibbert, but he was clearly an emphasis for Charlotte - they went to him on his first two offensive possessions of the game, he converted the second opportunity for a long baseline "jumper." Frank Kaminsky and Marco Belinelli were the next two off the bench for Clifford and this is where the game really slowed down. There were a lot of free throws in the early going. The two teams combined for 16 free throw attempts in the first 10 minutes of play.
Despite the slow start, Kemba had stayed consistent for Charlotte, highlighted by a 3-point make that could be described as a Steph Curry shot. Unfortunately, the rest of the Hornets were having their issues, including an after-timeout possession that resulted in another deep 3-point attempt, this time from Batum and nowhere near a make. The Raptors went on a 14-3 run, pushing themselves out to a lead they would not relinquish for the remainder of the half, despite a strong fight from the Hornets to get back within one point to end the first quarter, 28-27. It was all about the play of DeMar DeRozan and Kemba Walker in the opening period. DeRozan scored 14 points, Walker had 10.
Raptors start 2nd Q with 9-0 run, extending their lead to 36-27 with 9:43 left in half. Kaminsky was struggling, shooting 0-for-5 in the first half. While DeRozan took a break from torching Charlotte, Kyle Lowry got going, hitting a couple of big shots. And then the Hornets went completely cold. They shot themselves out of the game, starting 2-for-18 from the field in the second quarter, dropping behind 48-32. And then Kemba went nuclear, drilling a bunch of shots. Unfortunately, Charlotte couldn't slow down the Raps, so they closed distance but didn't get close enough despite Walker's effort. Raptors had a lot transition success in first half and finished the half up big, 58-44.
Slow start to second half, but Batum and Kemba start scoring, cut lead to 8. Walker getting to the line a whole lot, put up 26 points on 10 shots up to midway point of third quarter thanks to 10 shots at the free throw line, making eight of those. The Hornets kept attacking and getting to the line, eventually cutting the lead to two points despite shooting just 35.6 percent for the game up to that point. Their run to get back in the game was accentuated by a huge Zeller slam through contact and a clutch Marvin Williams 3, 67-65 Raptors with 5:37 left in the third quarter. The Hornets stayed close, but failed to grab the lead. Things started to look down when DeRozan got rolling again and Charlotte ran a play that ended with Zeller and Kaminsky guarding each other at the top of the 3-point line while Kemba had to force up an air ball that was resulted in a shot clock violation.
Seemingly unfazed, the Hornets ended the third quarter in complete opposite fashion of the doomed play they ran. Kemba hit even more 3s, for a total of six in the game by the end of the third quarter, then hit Batum with an assist to tie the game and riding high on the momentum, Kaminsky finally hit a shot - a big shot. After drilling his first make of the game, a 3-pointer, the Hornets headed into the fourth with the lead, 82-79. Walker had 32 points for the game at the end of the third, a season high.
While the offensive outburst of Walker was thrilling, it was their defense coming to life at the right time, holding the Raptors scoreless and forcing turnovers during the big Charlotte run of 18-0. Charlotte eventually, improbably pushed the lead thanks to contributions from everyone, which is what they needed the entire game. In the first half, Kemba did what he could to keep the game from being a blowout. In the second half, he picked up where he left off and got some help. Speaking of help, the Raptors fought back to tie the game at 97-97 before Zeller got his second slim-slam of the night and Marvin dropped a 3 to push the lead back to five, 102-97.
Unfortunately, there wasn't enough amazing in the tank for Charlotte. After the Marvin 3-pointer, Toronto went on a 12-0 run, led by DeRozan who simply played out of his mind, matching everything Kemba did for the Hornets. The Raptors run was enough to give them the win, thanks to some solid defense and bad luck for Charlotte. A few wide-open looks were missed and second chances went from potential points to ricochets and terrible 3-point heaves. Batum attempted a cross-court pass that hit the rim and gave the Raptors an easy two in transition and he also heaved up a very awkward 3-point attempt that never came close to going in. The cap to the game were 3-point makes from Batum and Kemba, giving us the final score - 113-111.
There was a lot of good and a lot of bad to take away from the game. Walker led all scorers with 40 points, added 10 rebounds for a double-double and dished out six assists. Batum also had a double-double of 18 points, 10 rebounds and Williams had a double-double of 10 points and a season-high 13 rebounds. As a team, Charlotte set a new season-high with 17 made triples. Graham scored just the one basket at the beginning of the first quarter in his first career start, but played over 24 minutes with three rebounds and two assists. Derozan finished with 34 points and three assist for the Raptors, Lowry added 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
It was a tough loss for Charlotte, but an encouraging second half. Their record might not say "best in the East," but they belong in the conversation.