Fans chanted “M-V-P” loudly and frequently on Tuesday as Kawhi Leonard generated a career-high performance while steering the Toronto Raptors to a 122-116 win over the Utah Jazz.
In his best game yet in a Toronto uniform, the new Raptor scored 45 points on 16-of-22 shooting as the home crowd repeatedly serenaded the All-Star forward with love when he stepped to the free throw line.
“It’s great, because it means they see your hard work, and your hard work is paying off and they appreciate what you’re doing,” said Leonard more than an hour after the game had ended and he returned to the Raptors locker room to find media awaiting him after his lengthy post-game weight-training session.
“That's why I took the challenge tonight of just staying and knowing I can make those shots and staying in my groove and just trying to win, that's it. That's all I'm trying to do, is just win the game.”
Pascal Siakam added 28 points as the Raptors survived a very gritty Utah team who got 30 points from Jae Crowder and 21 from Derrick Favors.
The win improves the Raptors' record to 28-11, while also increasing the club’s their all-time record at Scotiabank Arena on New Year’s Day to 4-0.
The Raps can now turn their attention to one of the most hotly-anticipated matchups of the regular season. On Thursday, Leonard will make his return to San Antonio to face his former team, the Spurs, and the beloved Raptor for whom he was traded, DeMar DeRozan.
The Raptors perhaps eased some concerns by shooting 54.9 percent percent from the field in Tuesday’s victory. The team was coming off an ugly 95-89 win over the Chicago Bulls two nights earlier, in which they shot a concerning 37 percent from the field, including 27.3 percent from three-point range.
They had to play once again without veteran leaders Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas. It was Lowry’s eighth absence in Toronto’s last nine games. The Raptors announced that the All-Star point guard received pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory injections for lower-back soreness on Friday at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Coach Nick Nurse expressed optimism about Lowry's improvement, saying the point guard is “progressing really well," and the absence "shouldn't be too long."
“It's now into the pain management stage,” said Nurse, stressing that the point guard was planning to do some shooting on Tuesday. “Each day we'll be monitoring him and seeing when he's gonna be ready to go.”
The team also announced that Valanciunas had sutures removed from his surgically repaired left hand on Dec. 29. It’s part of a healing process expected to last at least four weeks, following the Dec. 12 surgery to repair his dislocated left thumb.
“They're both two very good offensive players that do a lot of things for us. Two of our best screeners,” said Nurse, adding that their stats and senior leadership are hard to replace. “But we're getting there, we're starting to iron some things out with these other guys, and we've gotta figure it out without 'em. That's just where we are.”
Utah’s front court posed a big challenge to a Toronto squad sans Valanciunas on Tuesday. Their 7-foot-1 French centre Rudy Gobert – the reigning NBA Defensive Player of Year -- came to town averaging 15 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. And when Gobert left the floor, Favors could rollick in the paint, particularly against Toronto backup centre Greg Monroe.
The Raps trailed the Jazz 53-51 at the half.
But the Raptors came out of half-time with a 9-0 run to get the ball rolling, launching a quarter in which they’d make 79.8 percent of their field goal attempts. Siakam exploded for a trio of three balls in his 13-point third quarter. Leonard absolutely dazzled, erupting for 19 third-quarter points on a mesmerizing mix of fadeaway jumpers, hook shots and reverse layups, while masterfully drawing fouls.
“It’s good we all got to witness that live and in person. He was phenomenal,” said Leonard. “I think I’ve mentioned it a few times early in the year that it looks like he moves to some spaces fairly easy and he’d have some 9-for-22 at the end of the night and I’d be thinking, ‘When’s he going to go 16-for-22?’ Because it looks like there are shots that are on-line and they just wouldn’t go in. Kind of been waiting for one of these nights where he makes them all.”
Leonard would go to the free throw line 17 times Tuesday night, and make 13 of his attempts.
“We trapped him in the pick-and-roll. He scored in the post, he scored in isolation, he scored going to the rim over Rudy. Eventually we started hitting him when he walked across half court,” said Utah Coach Quin Snyder. “We did a pretty good job on him in the first half, but he obviously got it going.”
Norman Powell had his best game since returning on Dec. 19 after a lengthy layoff with a shoulder injury. He was a defensive energizer for Toronto and scored 14 points in 22 minutes. He spent some time defending Utah sophomore star Donovan Mitchell, who was held to 19 points. Gobert had 16 points and nine boards on the night.
The Raps built the lead up to 12 points, but the Jazz remained very much in contention down the stretch, largely behind the fourth-quarter production from Crowder.
The Jazz, a team with one of the NBA’s toughest schedules so far and hovering in the bottom half of the Western Conference standings, fell to 18-20.
The Raps fly to San Antonio Wednesday for Thursday’s contest, and then on to Milwaukee to face their foe from atop the Eastern Conference standings, the Bucks.