For Toronto, the narrative has become all too familiar.
A bad turnover off a last-minute inbound play, a missed call, a controversial ending, all leading to what turned out to be another disappointing loss to another seemingly vulnerable opponent in a building that has haunted them in the past.
The Raptors (26-42) have been there before but could do nothing to buck the trend on Wednesday as their comeback bid fell just short in a 107-101 defeat to the Charlotte Bobcats (16-52) at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Toronto got off to a quick start, leading by as much as 11 in the opening quarter before the Bobcats took control, fuelled by hot shooting and their second unit which produced three of their six double-figure scorers. The Raptors clawed back and pulled to within striking distance until a crucial turnover - caused by a Byron Mullens push off on Amir Johnson, which was not called - put the game out of reach.
Rudy Gay led the team in scoring for the third straight game with 25 points while DeMar DeRozan added 19 in a bounce-back effort. Kyle Lowry and rookie Jonas Valanciunas scored 18 apiece for the Raptors, who lost their fifth straight game in Charlotte.
Fast Breaking Points
- Bobcats Bench Brigade
The Raptors got away with an incomplete effort, stealing the victory when these teams met in Toronto five days earlier. Charlotte was held to just one field goal in the fourth quarter of that game and the Raptors were hoping to carry that success into Wednesday's tilt in the Bobcats' gym. It certainly looked like that would be the case early on but the jump shot-happy Raps lost momentum late in the first quarter and could never quite steal it back.
That early turning point occurred when both clubs went to their respective second units. Led by Mullens, who finished with 25 points, Charlotte's reserves came out firing and took advantage of the easy looks they created with pristine ball movement.
Toronto did make another run and even took a brief lead midway through the third quarter before Mike Dunlap went back to his bench and seized control once again. Ben Gordon gave several Raptors fits, including rookie Terrence Ross who couldn't keep up with the veteran guard as he moved without the ball, cut into the lane and knocked down big shots. Gordon had 11 of his 16 points in the second half and was crucial for the Bobcats down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Raptors' bench was ice cold, getting outscored 54-13 by Charlotte's reserves. As Toronto's second group continued to struggle Dwane Casey desperately searched for answers, going 11 deep and experimenting with his rotation. Even Mickael Pietrus, who hadn't seen the floor since Jan. 9, was given some rare second-quarter playing time.
The Stat: Toronto's second unit shot 5-for-21 while Charlotte's bench went 16-for-31, including 8-of-13 from three-point range.
- The Long Ball
Gay attempted the Raptors' first four three-point shots in the opening frame, knocking down two of them. The team proceeded to go 3-of-18 from long range the rest of the night, falling in love with deep jumpers that were not falling for them. On the other end of the floor the Bobcats had it down to a science, specifically their bench. Mullens, Gordon and former Raptor Jannero Pargo were the beneficiaries of crisp, decisive ball movement that got them high percentage looks beyond the arch, the majority of which they knocked down.
The Stat: Lowry is five for his last 27 attempts from three-point range. DeRozan (1-for-2) knocked down his first trey since Feb. 8 after misfiring on his last 13 attempts.
- Rise of Valanciunas
With the season winding down and the playoffs out of reach, Toronto's rookies continue to take advantage of the increased opportunity they are being given. Although Ross struggled on Wednesday - getting pulled from the game for a series of defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter - Valanciunas was a standout once again. The seven-footer played over 30 minutes and was on the floor in crunch time, something Casey has shied away from in the past.
As Casey has pointed out repeatedly this season, particularly over the last two weeks as his minutes have gone up, Valanciunas' biggest hurdle has come on the defensive end where he occasionally gets lost. Once again, he was far from perfect as a defender and rebounder - losing Josh McRoberts on a box out in the final minute which led to a crucial offensive board for the Bobcats - but the evolution in his game, on both ends, is evident. The mistakes, although costly at times, are not for a lack of effort and the growing pains he's experienced throughout the season are beginning to pay off.
Offensively he looks much more comfortable and confident, flashing some crafty moves around the basket when the team has gone to him in the post. His teammates are even looking for him more often coming off the pick-and-roll, something they need to do more of going forward and into next season.
The Stat: Valanciunas has scored in double figures in six of his last seven games.
The Raptors and Bobcats split the season series at two games apiece with each club winning on their home court. ... The Raptors last won in Charlotte on Mar. 29, 2010, losing seven of their last eight visits. ... Toronto shot 26-of-26 from the free throw line. It was the eighteenth game in franchise history in which they were perfect from the stripe, two attempts off of the team record set on Apr. 4, 2006 against Boston. ... Johnson had 10 boards to go along with his eight points. He has grabbed 10 or more rebounds in four of the last five games.
The Raptors head back to the Air Canada Centre for the first game of a weekend home-and-home set with the struggling New York Knicks (40-26) on Friday before facing them at Madison Square Garden Saturday evening.