Leonard pours in career-high 45 points to lead Raptors over Jazz

Raptors 122 Jazz 116

TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard shimmied around Utah defenders like their feet were rooted to the floor, and filled up the basket seemingly at will in a masterful third-quarter performance Tuesday.

The Raptors superstar scored 19 of his career-high 45 points in the third to lift Toronto 122-116 over the Jazz on New Years Day, sending the Raptors into 2019, and to San Antonio for a big upcoming game Thursday, with a victory.

“It’s good we all got to witness that live and in person. He was phenomenal,” coach Nick Nurse said. “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?”’

He shot exactly that on the night, to the delight of fans who serenaded Leonard with chants of “M-V-P!” He also connected on 13 of his 17 free throw attempts.

“Kind of been waiting for one of these nights where he makes them all,” Nurse said. “He was great and he’s a special, special player, as we know.”

Leonard has scored 20-plus points in 14 consecutive games, the longest streak of his NBA career. He’ll go for No. 15 on Thursday when the Raptors are in San Antonio to take on DeMar DeRozan and Leonard’s former team, the Spurs.

Moments after his career night, Leonard disappeared to the weight room to lift, finally returning to the locker-room some 45 minutes after the game’s final buzzer. His teammates had all departed.

Did he feel like he was in the proverbial zone Tuesday?

“Definitely. You have to have a certain rhythm about yourself,” Leonard said. “Games like this it is easy to make shots. I always enjoy the challenge when you miss your first couple and seeing whether you’re going to stay, or are you going to be mentally focused or confident in your shot.”

Leonard said he’d felt his shot was off the last few games.

“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,” he said. “That’s all I’m trying to do, is just win the game.”

Pascal Siakam added a career-high 28 points, while Norman Powell chipped in with a season-high 14 points for the Raptors (28-11), who played without Kyle Lowry for the eighth time in nine games.

Jae Crowder topped the Jazz (18-20) with 30 points.

Neither team led by more than four points through a first half that saw seven lead changes before Leonard and the Raptors finally put some distance on the Jazz with 44 points in the third quarter, the best third quarter in franchise history. They led 95-85 with one quarter to play.

Back-to-back three-pointers from Crowder sliced the Raptors’ lead to just four points with 4:06 to play, but Leonard muscled to the rim for a basket with 3:30 to play that restored an eight-point advantage. A Rudy Gobert dunk and a Ricky Rubio free throw pulled the Jazz to within four with just under a minute to play. But free throws from Siakam and Fred VanVleet in the waning seconds sealed the victory, and sent the capacity Scotiabank Arena crowd of 19,800 home happy.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder said Utah threw the kitchen sink of defence at Leonard, to no avail.

“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,” Snyder said. “Eventually we started hitting him when he walked across half court. The biggest thing is we put him on the line — what did he have, 17, 18 free throws? That’s a lot of free throws.”

Lowry, meanwhile, travelled to New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery on Friday to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving injections for his sore lower back.

Nurse remains optimistic Lowry is close to returning.

“I think so, yeah, I think so,” Nurse said before tipoff. “It’s now into pain management stage a little bit … Each day we’ll be monitoring him and seeing when he’s going to be ready to go.”

Lowry didn’t practise Monday, but Nurse said the four-time all-star did some shooting Tuesday.

The Raptors closed 2018 with an ugly 95-89 win over Chicago, limping out to 14 first-quarter points. Tuesday’s start was strong in comparison. Leonard had 10 points in the first, including the pullup jumper that gave the Raptors an eight-point lead. They shot 55 per cent in the frame, and took a 26-24 lead into the second.

The Raptors missed all five of their three-point attempts in a see-saw second quarter that saw neither team lead by more than four points. Utah took a 53-51 lead into the halftime break.

Toronto opened the third with a 9-0 run, and eventually stretched its lead to 12 points midway through the quarter. The Raptors shot a sizzling 78.9 per cent in the frame, and connected on all five three-point attempts, including three from Siakam.

The Raptors improved to 4-0 in New Years Day games in Toronto, including last year’s 131-127 overtime thriller against Milwaukee that saw DeRozan score a franchise-record 52 points in the win.

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