Raps’ win­ning streak over

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - SPORTS - RYAN WOL­STAT

BROOKYLN — The plucky Brook­lyn Nets have been hard­luck losers so many times this sea­son that maybe the bas­ket­ball deities threw them a bone on Fri­day night.

The 9-18 Nets can’t com­pete with Toronto’s tal­ent, yet out­worked the vis­i­tors and sur­vived in over­time to take the 106-105 fi­nal, drop­ping the Rap­tors to 21-6.

Fred Van Vleet had a chance to win the game, but rimmed out a three-pointer set up by Kyle Lowry on a bro­ken play.

D’An­gelo Rus­sell had 29 points, al­low­ing Brook­lyn to over­come Kawhi Leonard’s 32, and the Nets had a mas­sive 60-41 re­bound­ing ad­van­tage that helped negate Toronto’s 24-9 made free-throw ad­van­tage.

Leonard had missed a pull-up jumper late in the fourth, al­low­ing Spencer Din­wid­die a chance to pre­vent over­time, but Leonard guarded his drive well and no foul was called, re­sult­ing in the ex­tra pe­riod. Leonard threw down a mon­ster jam and hit some shots in the frame, but the Nets would not be de­nied.

The Van Vleet miss and two oth­ers by the strug­gling Lowry loomed large.

Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas had 24 points, Pas­cal Si­akam 16, but Toronto shot just 39% from the field and com­mit­ted 15 turnovers.

The Rap­tors opted to not hold a shootaround in the morn­ing, with head coach Nick Nurse ex­plain­ing that a busy week filled with games, events and sat­u­rated me­dia cov­er­age all added up, along with the no­to­ri­ously slow New York City traf­fic.

The way the game started might have caused Nurse to re­think the de­ci­sion, be­cause his charges cer­tainly could have used the shoot­ing work.

Toronto has had some aw­ful shoot­ing starts to games and this one was no dif­fer­ent. There was the 1-for-9 brick­lay­ing from be­yond the arc (in­clud­ing seven straight misses) in the first quar­ter, and 4-for-16 over­all in the first half to be­moan. Yet, Toronto found it­self tied at 53 apiece, largely thanks to a 15-3 made free throw ad­van­tage. In the open­ing half at least, the Nets could not stop the Rap­tors, but the Rap­tors could stop them­selves.

Valan­ci­u­nas fol­lowed up his huge ef­fort against Philadel­phia on Wed­nes­day with an­other dom­i­nant out­ing, sit­ting on 17 points at the break.

The Nets built up a lead as large as 14 points, but Valan­ci­u­nas and Leonard brought Toronto back with a 23-7 run. The turn­ing point was likely Leonard’s in­cred­i­ble sec­ond quar­ter steal. The for­ward grabbed the ball, then went be­hind his back to save the ball while fall­ing out of bounds. Some fans lost their drinks on the se­quence, but Lowry got the ball and found Leonard at the other end for a dunk.

The Nets played true to form, es­pe­cially since los­ing break­out guard Caris LeVert to a grue­some an­kle in­jury (LeVert is still on crutches). With­out LeVert the club has hung around in most games, only to come up short, but added a new twist, a win.

“Lis­ten we’re 2-10 with­out him. We knew we’d take a hit,” said Brook­lyn coach Kenny Atkin­son had said pre-game.

“With­out him, we haven’t been able to close out games. There’s no doubt about that.”

Still, Nurse clearly re­spected the Nets

“This team’s record could very well be .500 or bet­ter the way that they’ve played,” Nurse said.

They took a step in the right di­rec­tion by pulling this one out against a Rap­tors team that has some flaws, de­spite its gaudy record.

Shoot ’em if you’ve got ’em

Kyle Lowry was only at­tempt­ing 6.4 three-point­ers a game (24th in the NBA vs. sixth last sea­son) head­ing into this one, his low­est av­er­age since the 2014-15 sea­son and head coach Nick Nurse wants his star point guard to start hoist­ing up quite a bit more.

“Prob­a­bly not,” was Nurse’s re­sponse when queried whether Lowry was let­ting it fly of­ten enough.

“He started the sea­son as it be­ing one of his weapons (and needs to get back there) be­cause he’s got tremen­dous off-the-drib­ble three-point shoot­ing per­cent­age and range,” Nurse said.

“I want him to shoot 10 threes a night. Once he starts do­ing that con­sis­tently we’ll be happy,” Nurse said.

Lowry is lead­ing the NBA in as­sists and the team has found suc­cess while he has been on the floor, but with the team strug­gling might­ily as a whole on three-point­ers, the hope is that if he gets more ag­gres­sive with his jumper it might snap the team out of its shoot­ing malaise since he’s ar­guably the top marks­man on the squad.

No. 2 is good

Nets coach Kenny Atkin­son didn’t have to think too hard about why Kawhi Leonard has fit in so well in Toronto.

“Be­cause he’s a great player. He’d be great wher­ever he is,” Atkin­son said.

“He’s an elite two way player. He’s in peak form and play­ing great.”

Atkin­son, lauded for his player de­vel­op­ment work over the years in At­lanta and Brook­lyn, also cred­ited Toronto’s player de­vel­op­ment work with Pas­cal Si­akam, OG Anunoby and Fred Van Vleet.

The ques­tion also arose whether Leonard should be in the MVP con­ver­sa­tion.

“I don’t re­ally grade it who is go­ing to win the MVP very of­ten,” Nurse said.

“(But) I don’t know who is play­ing bet­ter than Kevin Du­rant. He looks pretty good to me. He dropped 50 on us ... I had hoped in the back of my mind Kawhi would be in the MVP (talk ... It’s early yet. He’s maybe on the out­skirts of the talk, or he’s en­ter­ing it be­cause he’s start­ing to score a lit­tle bit more now,” Nurse said.

“I keep telling ev­ery­body that I think there’s more to come with this guy.”

The big­gest dif­fer­ence Nurse has seen re­cently with Leonard is that his legs are com­ing back. He is get­ting more lift on his shots and get­ting higher on his dunks.

He’s also get­ting closer to be­ing avail­able ev­ery night.

“They’re clear­ing us to play him pretty much when we want, as many min­utes, though we’re not quite done with that stuff (rest­ing cer­tain games) yet, but we’re get­ting closer phys­i­cally and I think the rest of it just comes with his new en­vi­ron­ment. Learn­ing us and me and all that stuff,” Nurse said.

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