Kawhi Leonard's Career-High 45 Points Lead Raptors Past Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2019

Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) celebrates after his assist on a 3-pointer by Danny Green, with forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the final minute of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018, in Miami. Toronto defeated Miami 106-104. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)
Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

The Toronto Raptors picked up their third win in the past four games Tuesday with a 122-116 New Year's Day victory over the Utah Jazz at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Kawhi Leonard led the charge for the Raptors once again with a career-high 45 points and six rebounds. Pascal Siakam added 28 points and 10 boards for Toronto, which grabbed the lead with a 9-0 run to open the third quarter and never relinquished it.

Utah's Donovan Mitchell continued to struggle with his shot, connecting on just seven of his 23 attempts from the field en route to 19 points. Derrick Favors picked up the slack for the Jazz with 21 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.

            

Pascal Siakam Entrenched Atop Most Improved Player Race

Siakam's continued improvement is a major reason the Raptors have won four of their last five games without point guard Kyle Lowry, who's appeared in only one of the team's past eight contests because of back soreness. There's no timetable for his return.

Questions about whether Toronto could maintain its torrid pace while Lowry recovered in the star-dominated NBA have faded because the third-year power forward has come into his own. That was on full display Tuesday with his career-best 28 points.

His performance in the win over Utah also marked his second straight double-double after tallying 20 points and 12 boards in Sunday's triumph over the Chicago Bulls.

It's the type of play Toronto has been waiting on since it invested a first-round pick in the New Mexico State product in the 2016 NBA draft. He struggled to make a consistent impact over his first two years, averaging 4.2 and 7.3 points, respectively, in those seasons, but his potential is finally coming to fruition.

Along with helping the Raptors remain in the race for the East's top spot while Lowry is sidelined, it's put him in the spotlight for leaguewide honors, led by Most Improved Player.

Toronto is clearly benefiting from a return to full strength by Leonard, who was limited to just nine appearances last season because of a lingering quad injury. He was tremendous Tuesday and remains a top candidate in the MVP conversation at this stage of the season.

He needed help with Lowry sidelined, however, and Siakam has provided it.

Beyond individual accolades, the Cameroon native, who's doubled his scoring average from last season, could also be the X-factor in the Raptors making a run to the NBA Finals.

             

What's Next?

The Raptors will be tested as they head out on the road to face the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night followed by a clash with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday in a battle of the Eastern Conference's top two teams.

Utah continues its four-game road trip Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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