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Raptors run out of gas against Clippers, lose 98-88

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It was a heroic effort from the Raptors on the end of a back-to-back, but after losing another rotation player and the battle of the boards, they couldn’t hang on.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It gets easier every season to hand out moral victories, especially when you’re a blog focusing on (and cheering for, let’s be honest) a single team. That said, if there was a textbook definition for “moral victory” in one of those textbooks with pictures in the margins, there’d be a photo from tonight of Kawhi Leonard getting triple teamed at the top of the free throw line.

The Raptors absolutely played their butts off on Monday at the Staples Center, facing their former Finals MVP teammate Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers for the first time this season. Toronto’s defence was suffocating, they made runs to volley the lead with the well-rested Clips, and once again showed the blueprint of depth that opened before our eyes on Sunday night against the Lakers.

In the end, though, the odds stacked up against them. Already without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby was raked over his eye by Leonard in the first two minutes and left the game. We don’t know the extent of the injury, but post-game reports don’t look optimistic.

Down three of their once impenetrable eight-man rotation, the Raptors played hard, but couldn’t get the necessary rebounds and offence to click in order to beat the Clippers late. They looked laboured scoring ten points in the fourth, and eventually lost 98-88.

The glass ended up being the most obvious difference between the Raptors and Clippers on Monday. Los Angeles out-rebounded Toronto 66-38 overall, with a 20-5 advantage on the offensive glass. Five of those came from JaMychal Green, but the starting frontline of Patrick Patterson, Ivica Zubac, and “Board Man” Leonard combined for seven more. This gave the Clippers seven more shots than the Raptors, allowing them to win with a shooting split of just 37.0/22.2/73.3.

That’s the rub. Aside from getting boards (OG Anunoby has become a critical piece in doing that), the Raptors played some of their best defence of the season. Their strategy against Kawhi was layered, at one point throwing a box-and-one at their former star on one possession and trapping him at half court the next.

Overall, it was clear that Nick Nurse wanted multiple bodies on Kawhi anytime he put the ball down. Being the superstar he is, he still managed 12 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists. It came, though, on 2-for-11 shooting and with nine turnovers — a trade-off Toronto was more than fine with.

The focus on Leonard left a margin for error with the other Clippers, however. Lou Williams stepped up big for the home team, scoring a game-high 21 points on 15 shots, expertly getting the younger Raptors up on shot fakes and pumping the tires of his line with five made free throws.

Williams’ pick-and-roll partner Montrezl Harrell was also tough to stop, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 boards. The aforementioned Green also had a double-double off the bench, with ten points and 12 rebounds. Patrick Patterson made four threes for 12 points.

Besides Lou, it was the big guys who did the bulk of the damage for Los Angeles, which is quickly becoming a hallmark of the tougher games for the Raptors, who are even thinner up front now without Ibaka. Still, Chris Boucher put down another impressive game at backup centre, scoring 13 while getting six rebounds and two insane blocks, including this two-hand stuff of Harrell.

Elsewhere, the Raptors got good, if inefficient performances from Pascal Siakam (16 points, 6-for-17), Fred VanVleet (14 points, 6-for-20), and Norman Powell (5-for-12).

Give some credit to the Clippers here too, for as impressive as the Raptors were on defence, LA defended Toronto’s bread and butter offence very well. The shots for Siakam were mostly out of his comfort range, while the Clippers were more happy to surrender passes into the dunker spot. Toronto had middling success converting these, whether it was just misses by guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, tired legs, or Clippers like Zubac and Harrell coming over to challenge the shot.

It was a competitive game throughout, one that left you wondering how these two teams would look playing each other on equal amounts of rest (or even... in June? Okay I’ll relax). The wait for the next matchup isn’t too long, as Kawhi returns to Toronto on December 11.

Before that, the Raptors play in Portland on Wednesday night.

Some other observations from this game:

  • Though Boucher was foul-prone, it was awesome to see him rebound and shoot with confidence despite it being just his second game of the season with major minutes. At times, it was just like watching his 905 highlights — if that adjustment to NBA speed has happened, Toronto is going to enjoy him as a plug-and-play forward later in the season.
  • Hollis-Jefferson played his butt off after Anunoby went down, getting a lot of minutes on Kawhi (mostly sharing the primary duty with Powell). Still, he missed a lot of layups and shots in close, and is rushing a bit when getting passes in space. Hopefully that’s something that improves over time.
  • The Matt Thomas experience is never without excitement. Thomas came in and made all three of his shots in this one, while continuing the straight-legged running on defence that’s been getting him in trouble. If his O is making up for his D, it’s worth his playing time — either way, it’s fun to watch.