TORONTO — While the Raptors ran their record to 4-0 and came close to a franchise record with 36 assists in their highest offensive output of the young season Monday, coach Nick Nurse pointed to his defence after a 127-106 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
“I think we created a lot (of offence) out of our defence tonight which I was probably more happy with,” he said. ”It was a high-scoring free-shooting team coming in here and we asked (our players) to get out and contest and disrupt some of their rhythm and we did a pretty good job of that.”
“Eight blocked shots, (we) got our hands on a lot of balls,” he added.
Kawhi Leonard scored 22 points and Kyle Lowry added 16 points and 14 assists for his second straight double-double as the Raptors never trailed. Toronto, which led by as many as 25, was up by double figures the entire second half.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 23, 2018
“They’re long, they’re physical and they’re athletic,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said of the Raptors. “It’s a very good defensive group. Bringing in two elite defenders like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, you add that to their length, their athleticism, that’s going to be a heck of a defence all season.”
Leonard, continuing to shake off the rust from his injury-disrupted 2017-18 season in San Antonio, found his shooting range early — often with some shake-and-bake moves to befuddle the man guarding him.
Leonard, who went for a workout after the game, is now averaging 25.7 points through three games.
“He’s still not back to where he normally is but he’s getting glimpses of it,” said Green, his former teammate at San Antonio. “He’s starting to get back to himself, into his rhythm.”
All 13 Raptors scored and 12 of them contributed assists. Toronto finished with 36 assists on 50 made field goals — three assists off the single-game franchise record.
Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Toronto off the bench.
“A lot of guys played pretty well tonight,” said Nurse.
Toronto is one win away from the franchise record of five to open the season, set in 2015-16. The Raptors host Canadian Andrew Wiggins and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.
Kemba Walker led Charlotte (2-2) with 26 points. The eight-year veteran guard is averaging 33.0 points over his first four games.
Leonard, who was given the night off Saturday in Washington on the second half of back-to-back games, returned to action as Nurse used the same starting lineup — Lowry, Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka — as he did in Friday’s win over Boston.
Nurse had used three different starting lineup in the three previous games.
The game featured two of the hottest points guards in the league in Walker and Lowry, who have both been scoring from distance. Earlier Monday, Walker was named Eastern Conference player of the week after becoming the first player in Charlotte franchise history to reach the 10,000-point plateau.
Charlotte came into the game ranked No. 1 in the league in three-pointers made per game at 16.3, but made just nine of 28 three-pointers compared to 15 of 39 for Toronto.
Entering play Monday, Walker had an NBA-record 19 three-pointers through the opening three games of the season (a record previously held by Danilo Gallinari with 18 in 2009-10) while averaging a league-leading 35.3 points.
Walker missed his first three attempts from outside the arc but finished 2-of-7 to tie Steph Curry’s record of 21 in the first four games of his MVP campaign in 2015-16.
Lowry, who came into the game second in three-pointers in the East with 12, added three more to his total.
Toronto got off to a hot start and led by as many as 10 in the first quarter, with Leonard and Lowry combining for 13 of the Raptors’ first 17 points. The Hornets missed nine of their first 12 shots.
Charlotte missed its first six attempts from long-range. When the drought ended, two three-pointers led to an 8-0 Charlotte run in the second quarter before Norman Powell ended the streak with a spectacular one-handed slam dunk.
The Raptors rebuilt their lead for a 62-47 edge at the half. Leonard was good on three three-pointers compared to four for the entire Charlotte team.
The teams took their time arriving on the court for the second half with each getting a delay of game warning. It was more of the same in the third, with Toronto maintaining its advantage.
Toronto swept the season series with Charlotte last season and has now won nine of the last 11 meetings.
The game was a homecoming for Canadian basketball icon Jay Triano, a Hornets assistant coach who doubles as Canada head coach. The 60-year-old Triano, who coached the Raptors from 2008 to 2011, has also served as interim coach of the Phoenix Suns and as an assistant coach with the Suns, Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers.
The game also marked a return for former Raptor fan favourite Bismack Biyombo, who is making US$17 million this season in Charlotte. He had four points in a little more than eight minutes, getting an ovation from the sellout crowd of 19,800 when he entered the game.
Leonard and Green, meanwhile, faced former Spurs star Tony Parker, now in Hornet teal.
Toronto’s Delon Wright missed his fourth straight game (adductor strain) but is expected to be ready Wednesday.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press