First-place Raptors overpower sleepy Hornets

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—It’s all sweetness and light when you’re rolling like the Toronto Raptors are rolling, and the joking and fun times continue unabated.

After another lopsided win, another victory so thorough that the team’s starting five got another entire fourth quarter off, the good-natured jabs flowed freely.

“Ah, I’m tired of them,” Kyle Lowry said of the team’s backup group that helped the Raptors to a 123-103 win over the Charlotte Hornets here Sunday afternoon. “Freddy (VanVleet) came to us and told us ‘way to go bench mob,’ talking about us. We the bench mob right now.”

A stall away in the Spectrum Center locker room, DeMar DeRozan was joking that his career might be prolonged a year or two if he keeps getting fourth quarters off thanks to a bench group that’s the best in the league.

“Yeah, getting them to the all-star break early,” joked C.J. Miles. “They will be ready when it’s time.”

The starters weren’t a bunch of stiffs on Sunday, mind you. The Hornets got off to a 10-0 lead before the game was two minutes, but it went rapidly downhill from there. Toronto assumed a four-point lead by the end of the first quarter and the starters put the game away with an 18-2 blitz to start the second half.

It was four-fifths of the starting lineup, with Norm Powell filling in after OG Anunoby sprained his ankle late in the first half. He was walking fine after the game and team officials didn’t seem overly concerned.

It was the only blip on an otherwise outstanding day for the surging Raptors, who have now won five in a row and seven of their last eight, with two games remaining before an eight-day all-star break.

Toronto sit first in the Eastern Conference by a half-game over the Celtics — the latest in a season that they’ve ever held such a lofty position — and they’ve been playing tremendously.

DeRozan scored 25 points, Miles had 24 including six three-pointers, and Jonas Valanciunas made two shots from beyond the arc in a 21-point outing.

The Raptors tied a season high with 35 assists in the game, went 18-for-37 from three-point range and led by as many as 36.

For Miles, the game just continued a week-long trend of excellent outings. His 24 points marked a season high, his six three-pointers equal his best game of the season, and it came after he’d made eight of 12 three-pointers in his previous two games.

He made sure to credit the other, younger members of the team’s bench group.

“They keep you energetic,” he said. “They keep you running and moving and they just do the right things. We play basketball the right way.”

However, there was a feeling of understandable inevitability to the game. The Hornets had played Thursday in Portland, Friday in Utah, flew all day Saturday and then faced the top team in the Eastern Conference in a matinee affair.

“As professionals you try to give it all you can and I’m sure they did, but I’m sure they could have played better, but that’s tough,” Lowry said. “That’s our league and that’s some tough scheduling for them.”

Toronto took full advantage, to their credit. There were no extended periods of lax play, and when it came time to put the game away they did.

“Not taking anything away from our guys, but when you go out on a west coast trip, back-to-back in Utah and Portland, and travel on a day and play the next day at 1 o’clock, we knew we had to keep the pace up and try to wear them down and our guys did,” coach Dwane Casey said.

For Casey, the win was No. 300 of his Toronto tenure.

“This is a great man. This is a great accomplishment for him and he deserves to be in the record books in this organization,” Lowry said.