The 8th seed, in the Eastern Conference of the NBA, is still very much up for grabs with just three games remaining in the season.
The Charlotte Hornets, a team with an outside shot at a playoff spot, knocked off the Eastern Conference’s second-best team the Toronto Raptors 113-111 on Friday night. This was the second close game between these two teams in the last 12 days.
On March 24th, 2019, it was a buzzer beater from midcourt by Jeremy Lamb giving the Hornets a 115-114 victory in Toronto. This time it was Jeremy Lamb again hitting a late three-pointer from 27 feet out to keep the Hornets playoff hopes alive.
The Hornets got 22 points from both Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky also recorded 13 rebounds.
Kemba Walker scored 29 points leading the Hornets in the winning homecourt effort. The Raptors, who are now 56-24, got 29 points from Kawhi Leonard, 16 points and 11 assists from Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
The Hornets have to just win to close out the season as they are now 1 game back of the Miami Heat who are 9th in the East.
The 8th seed is currently held by the Nets who are two games ahead of the Hornets. Miami, after losing to the Timberwolves Friday night 111-109, is on a three-game losing streak and have slipped out of the playoff race.
The Nets have a tough task Saturday night against the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks and are themselves on a two-game losing streak.
Here are three talking points from the game last night between the Raptors and Hornets:
#3 Toronto’s Bench Woes
The Raptors bench was a strong factor in most games last year. However, this season, with Pascal Siakam’s meteoric rise to starter and perhaps the NBA’s MIP, the bench has been inconsistent.
The Raptors bench has also been minus Jacob Poeltl this season who was traded to the Spurs in the Kawhi Leonard deal. Fred Vanvleet has been injured at times and inconsistent this year.
Jonas Valanciunas could have helped when he was relegated to bench duties but got hurt in December 2018 and then was traded to the Grizzlies.
With Marc Gasol, Jeremy Lin, and Jodie Meeks all joining the team via trade or through late-season signings, the Toronto bench has been remade mid-season.
Friday night the Raptors bench was outscored 59-38 by the Hornets. Coming into this season, the Raptors were considered a deep team but while they have recorded 56 wins their bench production could be a hindrance in the playoffs.
#2 Charlotte Dominates Points In The Paint
The Hornets did not shoot the long ball extremely well on Friday night. However, for the second straight time against Toronto Jeremy Lamb won the game with a long ball.
Also, late in the second quarter and early third quarter Kemba Walker knocked down buzzer-beating threes. The Hornets made the long ball when they needed it Friday night. Otherwise, they were 13-39 from behind the arc or 33.3%.
The Hornets stayed in this game due to high-efficiency scoring dominating the Raptors not only in bench scoring but on points in the paint. They not only got 59 bench points but 58 points in the paint Friday night in comparison to the Raptors 50.
The Hornets shot a respectable 46.8% from the field despite the three-point shooting woes. The Hornets ability to get in the paint also led to them getting to the foul line 14 times and making 12.
#1 Marc Gasol Struggles
It's obvious that Marc Gasol is not a first, second, or third scoring option for the Raptors. In fact, since arriving after the trade deadline in February, he’s spent most of his time coming off the bench. He did start Friday night.
Gasol recorded just 6 points and 6 rebounds in 27 minutes. Serge Ibaka got 20 points and 12 rebounds in just 20 minutes. If Gasol was brought to Toronto for the playoffs and his experience it helps if the player produces.
Gasol’s production is way down. He is averaging just 9.3ppg and 6.5rpg for the Raptors. If the playoffs in 2019 go horribly wrong for Toronto, Kawhi Leonard could opt out of his final year and declare free agency on July 1st, 2019.
Irrespective of that, Gasol is 34 years old and will be likely to exercise his player option to stay in Toronto.
With declining stats and shooting efficiency since 2016, it's unlikely he could opt out of his $24.3 million option for 2019-20 and get a three-year $72 million dollar contract somewhere else at this stage of his career.
This all means the Raptors will be stuck with nearly $50 million dollars in salary for centers between Ibaka and Gasol next season.