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Morning Coffee – Wed, Jan 9

Raptors beat Hawks, Vince gets applause.

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When the Toronto Raptors found themselves in a late battle with the lowly Atlanta Hawks, the best player on the floor stepped up and did what he does best.

His forced turnover led to a Serge Ibaka dunk on the other end, which set the Hawks up for one last possession. Atlanta coach turned to rookie Trae Young and Raptors boss Nick Nurse called on two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year Leonard.

Not much of a surprise as to who won that battle.

Defend.

Kawhi Leonard posted a season-high six steals, none bigger than the one he grabbed with 24.1 seconds left and the Raptors down one.

Undeserving Raptors squeak by Carter and Hawks | Toronto Sun

“I’m not a big fan of the moral victories but a lot of guys were down and guys stepped up and played well,” veteran Hawks forward and former Raptor Vince Carter said. “It’s just unfortunate. We worked so hard, playing on the road. That’s a game that eventually we’ll learn how to win.”

John Collins was solid with 21 points while Jeremy Lin was his usual pain in the backside for the Raps finishing up with 20 points. Carter, who was given a standing ovation when he checked into the game finished with six points in just over 13 minutes.

For Toronto, Leonard continued his torrid pace of late with 31 points, six assists, six steals and four rebounds while Kyle Lowry got it going after a rather pensive first quarter to finish with 16 and four assists.

The Raps now have a couple of days off before hosting the Brooklyn Nets who have already bested Toronto once this season.

Kawhi Leonard Pursuit: Will the Raptors' all-out effort keep their star in Toronto? | SI.com

It’s mid-December, and Raptors president Masai Ujiri is leaning back on a folding chair in Toronto’s practice facility, his GM, Bobby Webster, beside him as their new franchise player runs through drills on the floor. Webster had been the one to kick-start negotiations with the Spurs, and Ujiri had been itching to shake up the roster, even before Leonard became available. (Last season, he approached the Thunder about a Paul George-for-DeRozan swap.) Since Ujiri took over basketball operations in 2013, the Raptors have been consistently good, never sinking below 48 victories. But they never felt great. “I have a mandate . . . to win a championship,” says Ujiri. “You can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. We gave a chance to [that] team. We tried to build it as much as we can.”

Enter Leonard, a 27-year-old forward coming off an injury-riddled season that fractured his relationship with the Spurs. For weeks this summer, Ujiri and his staff held meetings about Leonard, dissecting everything from his health (the Raptors had limited information about the status of the right-quad injury that cost Leonard all but nine games last season, and this wasn’t a deal they could just undo if Leonard failed a physical) to the risk/reward of giving up the franchise’s all-time leading scorer for a player who could walk at the end of the season. People who could offer any real insight into Leonard were hard to come by. “We got as much information as we could,” says Webster, “and we made a decision.”

Toronto Raptors eke out tight victory over Vince Carter and Atlanta Hawks | The Star

Believing in No. 3: Anunoby had his best game in weeks, putting up 14 points, two rebounds and an assist after a vote of confidence from Nurse.
“He’s a good defender, that’s always a good starting point,” Nurse said.

“He’s a good person, that’s another good starting point. He’s working. And I think there’ll be some chances to open things up for him and let him get his little groove back on.”

It was the first time Anunoby has hit double digits since Dec. 21 against the Cleveland Cavaliers and just the second time in 13 games.

Perhaps the most encouraging numbers for Anunoby, who looked decisive and confident in his play, was going 2-for-2 from the foul line after shooting 32.1 per cent from there this season.

Raptors squeak out a 104-101 win over the lowly Hawks – The Globe and Mail

Lowry was in his second contest back Tuesday after being sidelined for 10 of 11 Raptors games while managing lower back pain and a thigh contusion. He’d go on to shoot 5-of-12 on the night, and just 3-for-9 from three-point land. Lowry took just two shots in the opening quarter.

“I’m a patient kind of player. I’m just feeling the game out,” said Lowry afterward. “We’ve got great scorers in Kawhi, Serge, Pascal, guys out there who get themselves going. I can shoot whenever I want, but I like to get those guys going first.”

The starting lineup was without Danny Green, who had missed just one game so far this season back in December, and was given a rest night Tuesday. So the Raptors started two point guards, just like they had in Sunday’s win over the Indiana Pacers, with Fred VanVleet beginning the game with Lowry.

The Atlanta Hawks – winners of just 12 games this season – played neck-and-neck with the Raptors throughout the first half, and did so with players many fans couldn’t even name. One particular Hawk was very familiar to Toronto fans, though.

Game Recap: Raptors survive late scare, beat Hawks 104-101 – Raptors HQ

The story book ending would have been something though. If only because the rest of Tuesday night’s contest — which, again, featured way too many turnovers, and some of the softest defense from Toronto in recent memory — was not much to look at, or even care about. The star of the show was once again Kawhi Leonard who paced the Raptors with 31 points, on a largely casual 11-of-18 shooting, to go with six assists, four rebounds, and another six steals. It was Leonard who ripped the ball away from the Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry in the final minute, leading to a mad charge down the court with the Raptors down one.

Coach Nick Nurse admitted after the game that given the semi-5-on-4 odds of the specific late-game situation, he opted against a timeout. The gambit worked — Kawhi dribbled out of traffic, found Fred VanVleet, who swung it around to Kyle Lowry, who made the obvious dump pass to Serge Ibaka for the dunk. The turn of events was, as expected, loudly well-received, even if it felt like the Raptors should have not been in that situation with the Hawks to begin with.

Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard reunite to lead Raptors past pesky Hawks | NBA | Sporting News

While Carter was the focus in the early going, the Hawks took advantage of a sloppy Raptors team in the first half. Atlanta’s lead swelled to nine points in the second quarter, and the visitors even held a small advantage midway through the third as Toronto turned the ball over with uncharacteristic frequency.

The Hawks hung around right until the end, but as the game wore on so did the influence of the Raptors’ Big Two. Leonard, who extended his league-leading streak of games with 20 or more points to 17 on Tuesday, was an offensive dynamo as usual and had a near-even split of points scored in the first (15) and second (16) halves.

Lowry took a little longer to get into the game, as the rust of his long layoff was on display in the opening quarters. But in the second half the point guard shone, contributing 13 points and combining with Leonard on a number of key plays as the Raptors looked to hold off the pesky Hawks.

Raptors fans, Vince Carter indulge in nostalgia as veteran returns – Sportsnet.ca

He’s got goals. “A championship, obviously,” he said before his lottery-bound Hawks fought to the end before losing 104-101 to the team he broke into the NBA with — literally — a century ago.

If he hopes to do that with the Atlanta, Carter might have plans to play until he’s 50 that he isn’t telling anyone about. One day the Hawks won’t make 27 turnovers. One day they won’t make two of them in the final minute, leading by a point. That day isn’t here yet, not against the 31-12 Raptors. “It’s unfortunate,” he said after the game. “We worked so hard, playing on the road. That’s a game that eventually we’ll learn how to win.”

In the meantime, maybe something more accessible: Could Carter set a record as the NBA’s longest-serving player? Can he squeeze in one more year? Maybe more?

“I know now that I’m tied with a few guys [Robert Parish and Kevin Garnett also played 21 seasons] and it’s something I wasn’t aware of, prior to even a few years back,” he said. “I didn’t think about that. I mean, I didn’t come in thinking about playing this long anyway.”

5 takeaways from a nail-biter between the Raptors and Hawks | Sporting News

The clutch play of OG Anunoby
OG Anunoby had one of his better games of the season on Wednesday. The sophomore logged 28 minutes off the bench for the Raptors and led all reserves with 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from the field.

Anunoby played so well leading up to the fourth quarter that Nick Nurse went to him down the stretch in place of Pascal Siakam. Anunoby made the most of the opportunity by scoring a couple of important baskets in the final minutes of the game, one coming on a strong drive that pulled the Raptors within one point, the other coming on a dunk in the closing seconds that sealed the deal.

Anunoby also came up with a couple of steals in the fourth quarter. His defense is something Nurse highlighted after the game.

“He’s a good defender, that’s always a good starting point,” Nurse told Laura Armstrong of The Star.

“He’s a good person, that’s another good starting point. He’s working. And I think there’ll be some chances to open things up for him and let him get his little groove back on.”

Raptors begin piecing together Leonard-Lowry puzzle with duo reunited – Sportsnet.ca

“I think it’s been too few, if you want my honest opinion,” Nurse said at his team’s shootaround Tuesday morning. “They’re our two best players and we need our two best players on the floor.”

It should go without saying. For all the nice stories the Raptors have had up and down the roster this season, such as the emergence of Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka’s quiet effectiveness, the energetic and impactful return of Norman Powell, and Danny Green’s all-around contributions, this basketball team will either suffocate or thrive on the play of Leonard and Lowry.

And the early returns were encouraging. Through Dec. 9, Leonard and Lowry had played to a plus-10.7 net rating when on the floor together — which could be better, could be worse. It was at least trending up. After some early hiccups, it looked like they were developing something.

Then, they traded inactives for a month. Lowry with a stubborn back injury that turned out far worse than he’d expected, Leonard with intermittent nights off meant to allay the physical deterioration 82 basketball games will bear. This wasn’t the plan, particularly following a training camp in which Nurse prioritized getting the two as much floor time together as possible. But when does anything go according to plan?

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