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Rapers show champion heart but short against Leonard Clippers



LOS ANGELES – When Doc Rivers talked about blood transfusions, he was metaphorical – or at least we thought.

Context: Los Angeles Clippers head coach was asked about the relationship Kave Leonard – his new cornerstone of the franchise – would have with his former Toronto Raptors teammates, along with the championship.

"He has a different relationship with them," Rivers said.

"He was dancing in the dressing room. It's a rarity that you have the opportunity to do it with guys. That group, whatever that team was, is like a blood transfusion. They'll be connected to that team and that city for the rest of their lives, no matter what you do or where you go, that's just the way it is.

But before the Raptors' first match against their old teammate, after leaving them in free agency last summer, you had to wonder if Rivers was a little more light-hearted.

The game was not two minutes old when Pascal Siakam found OG. Anubis deep in the color of the basket cut. Leonard was also there, and he did what the Raptors fans saw him countless times: see the ball, get the ball.

He stripped the ball of his huge myths, knocking Anunobi – one of the few players in the league in the same category as Leonard physically – to the floor and sent the Clippers another quick break.

The only problem was that in the process Leonard ripped Anunobi off his face, piercing his eye, drawing blood and leaving him blind in color. The third-year striker, enjoying a breakout season, had to leave the game and was unable to return with a swollen closed eye.

Well, at least Leonard feels bad about it.

"Just crashing the tape, I went to steal it and ended up punching him in the face," Leonard said at the time. "I ended up getting the ball and going down (in another way). I hope it's good, though, I'll answer it and see how it feels. “

The only answer was no big deal. Anunobi was last seen leaving the Staples Center with a dense bandage over his left eye with plans to see an ophthalmologist in Los Angeles on Tuesday before the Raptors leave for Portland, their next stop on their five-game journey.

Of course, the Raptors' head coach Nick Nur was not happy about losing his best defensive player so soon – and without any foul he was called to the pitch.

"Guy lost both contacts and cut off his eyes with blood," the nurse said. "You arekidding me?"

Hey, no one said playing against Leonard would be easy.

But even down Kyle Lori (thumb), Serge Ibaka (ankle), Pat McCau (knee) and Anunobi, the Raptors were fine with that. They came in to play hard, end up in staggering congestion – winning back-to-back matches against justifiable co-favorites to capture the NBA league title, with Leonard winning the Raptors in his only Toronto season.

Incredibly, the Raptors took the game in the fourth quarter to win. Their road there was unpredictable and unconventional because two teams share the NBA arena for home games, but hey, LA.

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The Raptors pushed the highly favored Clippers. Down four with just over a minute, they had two chances at the edge that didn't go – the Siakam lineup that went in and out and the Butcher blocking drive with the nail. More shots came in and out it seemed fair to the undisclosed group trying to win in the most incredible of circumstances.

The Raptors eventually fell 98-88 to 7-3 on the season and 2-1 on their trip, but could only grow in the eyes of anyone watching.

"Our guys used their intestines, we completely outgrown them, I think," the nurse said. "We played harder, we performed better, we created a lot of problems for them, just not enough."

Everyone went inside. There was not much choice given the injured walking.

Matt Thomas' three-ball late in the third and then the buzzer had the Raptors, LA's leading "other" team. 78-73. Another stranger? Thomas, Ronda Hollis-Effeferson and Chris Booker had more points (eight, nine and 13, respectively) than Leonard's 12, and Leonard averaged 29 points per game.

Even down, the Raptors' harassment of their old teammate did not stop there. They pushed him into the three-point line and drove him into traffic where, more often than not, the great Mark Gasol was waiting to help. Nothing was easy.

The Raptors have tried – what choice they have, really – to replicate the success they enjoyed in their unexpected harassment of the Lakers on Sunday night. Once again, the nurse dug in her sack of tricks, hitting the defense, doubly liberal, forcing non-stars to beat the roster without a starter.

Leonard was a target, and he worked mostly while Toronto held his old teammate to a 2-of-11 shooting and forced him to go nine times with nine assists and 11 rebounds.

"We went obviously full pistols on all the lids on him to make life difficult and we did a good job on him," the nurse said. "But he got some good transition buckets in the fourth, made some great shots of them when they needed them, which is what he does."

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Anyone who climbed to the floor could come up to the tree with confidence that they would have a chance to make an impact. All eight players who saw the floor – except Anunobi – scored at least five points, no more than Siakam's 16, as the Raptors held a 40 percent shot, but still had a chance to stretch.

Most Impressive Numbers? Fred VanVlet and Siakam play 45 and 44 minutes, respectively, on the second back-to-back night. Everything stayed on the floor.

The script was a bit different from their incredible win against the Lakers. They were defensively everywhere, flying around, blocking three-point shots or crashing into the bar to dig into Leonard. Hollis-effeferson stepped up against Leonard in place of Anubi.

One carriage? Booker chose where he went against LeBron James and the Lakers, hitting the first three shots, including a eight-point pair of threes in the first quarter to go along with theft and block. The Raptors held the Clippers to a 6-of-21 shooting from the floor in the fourth and led 23-15. Who knows? If Butcher hadn't been so big in trouble – he was limited to 22 minutes and finished with five fouls – the outcome could have been different.

The Clippers got away with it in the second quarter, though Leonard didn't, as the Raptors were determined to turn their former teammate and MVP 2018 finalist into a passer by allowing someone else to beat them. And it worked. The Clippers led 51-46 at halftime and Leonard was 0-for-5 from the floor for four points – all on the line – adding four assists.

There was little that the Raptors could do about another former teammate, Lou Williams – who won the Sixth NBA Award during his one season with the Raptors – as he cut his way to 14 points in the first half.

The Raptors spread it around: of the eight players who hit the floor, they all scored at least one basket halfway.

Something Rivers predicted: "They are a confident team. I call it Cup Deletion. You have the title and you can lose five guys … (s) guys believe they can win. Because they won and they know how to win together. So you see them playing as a group.

"You can't break it. They can be lowered by 20 and you will not undermine that confidence. You have to keep fighting teams like that. "

Leonard may be drawing first blood, but his former teammates – to a man – have proven to have a lot of heart. Cup heart.

But then again, Leonard knew that.


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