Raptors looking to gain ground on Heat

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It’s a new year, but it’s still “The Season After Kawhi Leonard” for the Toronto Raptors, who visit the Miami Heat on Thursday night.

The Raptors won all four games against the Heat last season as Toronto went on to win the first NBA title in franchise history. Leonard — the 2019 NBA Finals MVP and a three-time All-Star — bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers after just one glorious season in Toronto.

This season, with expectations lowered, the Raptors have been solid, sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and just 1.5 games behind the Heat.

The Heat beat the Raptors the only time they have played so far this season, 121-110, in overtime on Dec. 3 as Miami’s Jimmy Butler had a triple-double: 22 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.

“Just two good teams going at it,” Butler said. “We were fortunate to do our jobs.”

That game also featured the return of Raptors star point guard Kyle Lowry, who had missed the previous 11 contests due to a fractured left thumb. Lowry was rusty in his return, missing his first 11 shots. He finished with 12 points and 11 assists, shooting 2-of-18 from the floor and 0-for-11 on 3-pointers.

“That was terrible,” Lowry said of his performance. “But I’m sure I’ll be better.”

Indeed, Lowry, a five-time All-Star and the team’s unquestioned leader now that Leonard is based on the West Coast, has scored at least 20 points in each of his past three games.

For the season, he is averaging 20.9 points and 7.5 assists while leading the NBA in playing time (38.0 minutes per game).

“He’s their backbone,” Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson said of Lowry after the Raptors beat his team 117-97 on Tuesday. “Kyle is a bulldog. He’s going to compete every night. That’s why his teammates always love him.”

The Raptors will need Lowry on Thursday as they are missing three starters: center Marc Gasol (left hamstring), forward Pascal Siakam (groin) and shooting guard Norman Powell (left shoulder). All three were injured in a Dec. 18 win at the Detroit Pistons.

Toronto has enjoyed 20 consecutive winning months — the longest active streak in the NBA — but January could get off to a losing start if a key trend holds: Miami has the best home record in the NBA at 15-1. (Toronto is 9-6 on the road.)

In addition, the Heat should be properly motivated after an embarrassing 123-105 loss at the lowly Washington Wizards on Monday. The Heat allowed a season-high 42 points in the second quarter.

“We got destroyed on both ends,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “Our defense was not even slightly there.”

The Heat, healthy other than point forward Justise Winslow (out due to a back injury), are led by Butler in scoring (20.8), assists (6.6) and steals (2.0). Center Bam Adebayo leads Miami in rebounds (10.6) and blocks (1.2). Rookie guards Kendrick Nunn (16.0) and Tyler Herro (13.7) average nearly 30 points combined.

Siakam, the reigning NBA Most Improved Player, leads Toronto in scoring (25.1) and is tied for the top spot in rebounds (8.0). His absence — and that of Gasol (6.6 rebounds) and Powell (14.4 points) — looms large.

The Raptors are relying on guard Fred VanVleet (18.0 scoring average) and center Serge Ibaka (8.0 rebounds) to fill those voids.

–Field Level Media

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