Were the NBA playoffs to start today, the Toronto Raptors would be the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and take on the No. 7 Charlotte Hornets in the first round. The Raptors close a three-game road trip on Friday night with their final regular-season visit to Charlotte. The Hornets opened as slight favourites on Sports Interaction NBA odds as they are a much better team at home than on the road — as most clubs are.
Toronto Raptors at Charlotte Hornets
Spread: Hornets -1.5 Total: 216 Date: Friday, Jan. 20, 7 p.m. ET Location: Spectrum Center, Charlotte
If the Raptors (28-14) want to steal the East’s No. 1 seed from Cleveland, they can’t afford to lose to bad teams like Philadelphia. That’s what Toronto did Wednesday, 94-89. The Raptors had won 14 straight against the Sixers, their longest winning streak against one team since they beat the Bulls 16 in a row from 1999-2002. The 89 points by the Raptors was their second fewest of the season.
In a way, though, you could see that loss coming. It was the second of a back-to-back after a win in Brooklyn on Tuesday and also the team’s third game in four nights. Coach Dwane Casey had hinted at resting DeMar DeRozan against the 76ers like he did Kyle Lowry against the Nets. DeRozan did play and had 25 points, while Lowry added 24. Jonas Valanciunas had 10 points and 16 rebounds. Alas, that trio got little help. No other player had more than eight points or six rebounds.
DeMarre Carroll had more fouls (2) than points (0) in 23 minutes and left after taking a knee to the head while diving for a loose ball. Early reports are that Carroll avoided a concussion, but he’s questionable for Friday. The frontcourt already is thin with Patrick Patterson missing the past four games with a knee injury and Lucas Nogueira sitting out against Philly with a concussion.
There was very good news in the 76ers’ loss, however, as Jared Sullinger made his season debut. He was signed as a free agent from Boston this past offseason and expected to start at power forward. Foot surgery derailed those plans. Sullinger looked good Wednesday with eight points and three rebounds in 14 minutes. The plan initially was to bring Sullinger back Friday, but he was needed with Patterson and Nogueira out.
The Hornets (21-21) looked listless in a winless five-game road trip that they concluded Monday with a 10-point loss in Boston. They were able to flip a switch back home Wednesday in a 107-85 victory over Portland. Point guard Kemba Walker, who is having an All-Star caliber season, led the way with 23 points while Nic Batum had 17. Batum is one of the most underrated players in the NBA.
The Hornets also got 44 points from their bench — one key member of that bench is Marco Belinelli, who played for the Raptors in the 2009-10 season — and the defense played its best game in a few weeks, snapping an eight-game streak of allowing at least 100 points. Charlotte held Portland to 13 points in the fourth quarter, tying a season-low by a Hornets opponent in any quarter.
The individual matchup to watch here will be Walker against Lowry, former Big East college stars. Walker has never been an All-Star but is averaging 23.0 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds compared to Lowry’s 22.2 points. 7.1 assists and 4.9 rebounds. Lowry leads the Eastern Conference with 134 made 3-pointers, while Walker is tied for second with 115. Walker led Connecticut to the NCAA national championship his final season and was taken No. 9 overall by the Hornets in 2011.
Charlotte is 13-7 at home this season and 11-9 against the spread. On Nov. 13, Toronto won there 113-111 as the Raptors rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. DeRozan had 34 points and Lowry 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Walker was spectacular with a season-high 40 points along with 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Raptors at Hornets Predictions
Toronto has won the past three meetings in the series overall but did lose in its lone trip to Charlotte last season and was fortunate to get the W there in November. Take the Hornets here as the favourite is 5-2 ATS in the past seven meetings. Expect another shootout, so go over that total as the over is 7-3 in the past 10 in this series.