Leonard’s 31 lead Raptors past Pelicans, 127 104

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Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) defends against Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018, in Miami. Toronto defeated Miami 106-104. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

Kawhi Leonard was bound to have a big night.

New Orleans was without its best on-the-ball defender in Jrue Holiday and best rim protector in Anthony Davis. Those absences gave Leonard an opportunity to use the Pelicans’ up-tempo pace against them by going strong to the basket early and often.

Leonard scored 31 points and the Toronto Raptors snapped a two-game skid with a 127-104 victory over undermanned New Orleans on Friday night.

“I got a lot of buckets in transition, easy layups, even wide-open shots, and that probably got me going a little bit,” Leonard said. “Tonight was just my night.”

Pascal Siakam scored 19 and Kyle Lowry had 13 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds for the Raptors, who began to pull away late in the third quarter and cruised from there.

“We weren’t forcing our will on the game as much as we should have in the first half,” Lowry said. “They played well in the first half and we figured it out.

“We just had to get our defence into the game a little bit more.”

Frank Jackson scored 20 points for the Pelicans, who’ve lost two straight. Julius Randle had 18 points and nine rebounds, and Cheick Diallo had 16 points and 12 boards for New Orleans.

Leonard met little resistance in the paint. While he missed four of five 3-point attempts, he was 13 of 15 from closer range. He threw down a handful of dunks on drives or cuts and mixed in a finger roll and reverse layup.

“He used his strength a lot tonight,” Lowry said. “He got to his spots really well.”

Toronto shot 54.1 per cent (53 for 98), scoring 66 points in the paint and a season-high 53 on fast breaks.

“We know they can run, but we like to run, too,” Lowry said. “We got some easy buckets out of it.”

Holiday, the Pelicans’ second-leading scorer, was ruled out Thursday because of an abdomen strain that is expected to sideline him at least a week. On Friday, the Pelicans first announced that swing player E’Twaun Moore also would miss at least a week because he’d reinjured his left quadriceps, and then that Davis would sit out against the Raptors with back spasms. The Pelicans’ front court got even thinner when Jahlil Okafor went out with a left ankle sprain after halftime.

Still, New Orleans kept the game competitive until late in the third quarter, when Danny Green hit consecutive 3s during a 9-0 run that widened Toronto’s lead to 88-75.

“I still think that we competed and to me, that’s the most important thing. I don’t really care who we put out there,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We just ran into a situation in the middle of the third quarter where they had guys to go to and we missed a couple of layups, missed a couple of open 3s and that’s where they got the separation.”

When Jeremy Lin and Lowry hit consecutive 3s in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Raptors’ lead had grown to 21 and fans started making their way toward the exits.

Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard speaks at a press conference during media day in Toronto on Monday, September 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TIP-INS

Raptors: Lin scored 14 points and Green had 13, going 3 of 4 from 3-point range. … Serge Ibaka had 12 points and 11 rebounds. … Toronto was 13 of 37 on 3-pointers (35.1 per cent).

Pelicans: Elfird Payton scored 13 points, Ian Clark scored 11 and Darius Miller 10. … F Solomon Hill played for the first time since Feb. 4 after not getting any playing time in New Orleans’ previous 13 games. Hill played 12 minutes, scoring his only points on a 3-pointer to go with two rebounds, an assist and a steal.

BETTER BENCH

With Lin and Ibaka leading the way, Raptors reserves combined for 47 points, a sharp increase in production from their recent losses to Detroit and Houston.

“We take a lot of pride in being good with our unit and so we know that the second unit in the last two games has been far from that,” Lin said. “Tonight, we wanted to make sure we put a stamp on the game in a positive direction.”

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Miami on Sunday for the second of three straight road games.

Pelicans: Visit Atlanta on Sunday.

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