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Raptors defeat Suns 107-98 in second half eclipse

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The score ended up a lot closer than it was, as the Raptors used some halftime motivation to dominate the second half against the young Suns squad. Toronto moves to 8-1 on the season.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard scored 19 points, Jonas Valanciunas chipped in 16 and Kyle Lowry notched an 11-point, 12-assist double-double as the Raptors defeated the Suns 107-98 in the first of their four-game West Coast road trip. DeAndre Ayton added 17 points and 18 rebounds in a losing effort.

The game began innocently enough, with the Raptors and Suns trading buckets until an 11-4 run by the Suns put Nick Nurse and the Raptors on their heels. It was perhaps at that moment the team realized they have a target on their back — the kind that brings the best out of a young team looking to make a statement.

An awful shooting start (Toronto was shooting 34 percent from the field at one point in the first half) combined with uncharacteristically relaxed defense saw the Raptors struggle to take control early like they have so often in their first eight games. Another sub-par effort by the bench led to an early deficit — a truly rare occurrence this year. By the midway point of the second quarter, down by six points, the starters would return to the floor hoping to gain some momentum heading into halftime.

Kawhi Leonard did just that.

He scored seven straight points (12 in the first half) for Toronto after checking back in, including a triple, hoping his hot touch would get the rest of the team moving their feet a little more on both ends — and it worked. After Siakam took a steal coast-to-coast for a layup, Leonard would find Lowry for an easy bucket underneath the hoop, and then complete a three-point play to put the Raptors up 46-45, before heading into halftime down 52-48.

Toronto carried that late second quarter momentum out of halftime, ripping off an immediate 13-2 run to open the third quarter, before Phoenix responded with a 7-0 run of their own to tie it up at 61 apiece. With both teams playing at full speed now, it was anybody’s game.

Just kidding — it was always going to be the Raptors’ game.

Toronto would go on an extended 30-14 run between the middle of the third and the beginning of the fourth to go up 91-75, and the Raptors were finally in control of this one. It might have taken longer than usual, but deep down fans were never really worried.

This roster has shown unbelievable focus when it matters most this season. Whereas it’s usually a mixture of starters that gets the job done, it was a lineup of VanVleet, Anunoby, Ibaka, Powell and Miles that turned up the heat on the lowly Suns — making play after play in the early fourth quarter. CJ Miles (who drilled three 3’s in the second half), Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet all hit triples in the fourth, and the Suns had no answer defensively for the Raptors’ long-range shot. After starting 4-of-17 from deep, the Raptors would hit 8-of-16 to finish the game, helping ignite the second-half offensive burst.

By the time Lowry, Valanciunas and Leonard returned to the floor around the six minute mark, Toronto was up 16 and the game was all but over (signified by the “Let’s Go Raptors” chants echoing though the Talking Sticks Resort Arena). The Suns would score a few unanswered points here and there, but the runs never felt threatening with Nurse quick to put out the fires (Suns pun!).

A Few Game Notes:

Despite shooting just 43 percent in the first half, the Raptors were able to gather only two offensive rebounds, leading to a -12 rebounding deficit. This helped the Suns keep Toronto from gaining any real traction in the first half, and also kept them from knocking down those deadly second-chance triples we often see the Raptors take advantage of.

Fred VanVleet made his return to the lineup after missing the previous four with a toe injury, and he might not be 100 percent just yet, and as he noted post-game, he was “still getting his legs under him.” There were a number of early possessions where he didn’t look full speed, but he began making his trademark plays after halftime and finished the game with eight points and six assists in 20 minutes off the bench.

Kyle Lowry was able to get a little more rest thanks to VanVleet’s return, but still stuffed the box score. This was Lowry’s seventh straight double-digit assist game in a row, and he’s averaging 12.2 assists in his last five — clearly the best he’s looked finding his teammates in his career as a Raptor.

Kawhi Leonard would leave the court and head back to the locker room late in the fourth quarter for, as Nurse called it — a “jammed foot,” whatever that entails. In 30 minutes, Leonard posted 19 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished five assists and tallied two steals plus a block. That’s a mouthful, and quite a stat-line — he was everywhere tonight.