Well, at least they didn’t blow a big lead.
On Monday afternoon, the Toronto Raptors (20-20) actually almost did the exact opposite, coming agonizingly close to tying up what was at one point a 30-point lead for the host Charlotte Bobcats. After getting fouled on a made lay-up in the game’s final minute to pull his club to within one, Kyle Lowry missed what would have been the game-tying free throw. Much to the chagrin of a clearly dismayed Lowry, the Raps would never get closer, going on to fall 100-95 and retreat back to the .500 mark on the season.
The near-comeback shouldn't obscure the real reason for Toronto's loss on Monday: an awful first half in which Al Jefferson proved unstoppable (he finished with 22 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists), the Raps couldn't buy a bucket (33% shooting) and Charlotte was firing on all cylinders (54%). In the end, the Bobcats' ball movement proved to be the difference-maker, allowing the home side to shoot well from three-point range (9-16, 56.2%) and gain a big edge at the free throw line (27-33, 81.8%).
It's easy to under-rate the Raptors' just-falling-short comeback. For one thing, it wasn't actually a complete comeback. On top of that, most fans would be quick to point out - rightfully so - that the team shouldn't take any solace in nearly getting away with an abysmal showing. But let's put this one into context: from the 4:37 mark of the third quarter to that fateful missed free throw with 25.9 seconds to go, the Raps outscored the Bobcats 51-22. That's 51 points in just over 16 minutes. What's more, the club's recent track record of resiliency left at least myself - and presumably other Raptor fans - kind of expecting the comeback!
The Forgotten Former Kings
Since December's Rudy Gay trade, the focus on the Toronto-bound quartet has primarily been fixed on Patrick Patterson, who has opened eyes with huge contributions off the bench, and John Salmons, who has been a potent scorer off the bench. Against Charlotte, it was time for Chuck Hayes and Greivis Vasquez to shine, with Hayes posting a 12-point, 13-rebound double-double and Vasquez coming surprisingly close to a triple-double (15-9-7) while finishing with a game-high +23.
For the second time in as many days, Toronto was undone by the same thing they've done so well, themselves, post-Rudy: a balanced scoring attack. With Kemba Walker out, the Bobcats' offence took on a scoring-by-committee approach with five double digit scorers and eight players taking at least four shots each. Even a clear 28-19 edge in the assists department came courtesy of a collective effort, with Jefferson's seven leading a group that included six players dishing out two or more dimes.
The Free Throw Disparity, Again
Sorry Raptors, but the "jobbed by officiating" narrative that permeated the Lakers' loss doesn't hold up here to explain how Charlotte attempted 23 more free throws than Toronto. Quite simply, the 'Cats were just more aggressive in getting to the line. With Walker out, Ramon Sessions stepped in seamlessly as the spark plug point guard and worked his way to 11 attempts from the charity stripe (he made 10 of them). On the other hand, the Raps' seven made free throws on 10 attempts marked a surprisingly passive showing by the visitors.
The Starting Forwards
Lowry may have been hanging his head after missing that critical free throw, but he had nothing to apologize for based on his over-all performance on the day. He and DeMar DeRozan combined for 46 points on 19-45 shooting while accounting for 18 of the team's 51 points during their big rally. On the other hand, you had the other 60% of the starting line-up. Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross offered up next to nothing on Monday, finishing with a combined five points on 2-15 shooting and the game's three lowest plus/minus figures.
Seriously, what is up with the Raptors and the Bobcats' Time Warner Cable Arena? Monday's loss marks the club seventh straight defeat at the arena and 11th in their 14 all-time visits to Charlotte.
Is Jefferson actually earning his three-year, $41 million contract? Well, no, that's still too much money. But he's at least given Charlotte some bang for their buck, averaging a double-double (18.2 points, 10.4 assists) and creating a high/low attack with Walker that has Bobcats currently sitting in a playoff position despite having lost seven of their eight divisional games against the Southeast.
The Raps reach the halfway mark in the season as they host the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night (7:00pm, SN).
Prediction: Mavs 97, Raps 96 (23-9 this season)