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Even without Leonard, the Raptors keep rolling along

Nick Nurse

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

It would have been reasonable to believe the Toronto Raptors might feel the sting of Kawhi Leonard’s departure and drop a rung or two in the Eastern Conference this season. Defending NBA champions have done so for less creditable reasons in the past.

Well, that certainly hasn’t been the case so far. The Raptors are still formidable. And Raptors coach Nick Nurse believes he knows why.

“We got a lot of practice last year by playing 22 games without Kawhi and we went 17-5. It was a little bit of a test run, so we knew we could play OK,” Nurse said on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption.” “A lot of the guys have improved, (Pascal) Siakim, (Fred) VanVleet and (Serge) Ibaka have taken a step up. And they believe in themselves.”

The Raptors had won 15 straight until Wednesday’s 101-91 loss at Brooklyn. And after it was over, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson didn’t pump his chest, saying instead his team’s compete level needed to be “two levels higher” than usual.

“We have to pitch close to a perfect game to beat this team,” Atkinson told the media. “That is how good they are.”

What can you say? It wasn’t Toronto’s night. They trailed the Nets by 12 points at the half, just the sixth time in their last 16 games they were behind heading into the third quarter. They hadn’t lost since the San Antonio Spurs beat them on Jan. 12.

“We were walking zombies,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “We didn’t play well, simple as that. We missed shots, we weren’t aggressive. And give them credit. They played their butts off, and they beat us. It’s only one game.”

True. But it did stop the Raptors winning streak three short of Milwaukee’s, the longest run in the league this season.

“It is what it is, man,” VanVleet said. “We weren’t going to win them all.”

It was a remarkable run for the Raptors, far exceeding their previous team record of 11. In fact, it was the longest winning streak for any professional team in Canada’s history, including all those great Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup-winning teams.

“I feel like we’re not only doing something cool not only for ourselves but for Canada, for Toronto, the fans,” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson told The Athletic. “It’s something big that hasn’t been done, I think they said, across sports.”

That’s just one reason the team enters the All-Star break with a high level of satisfaction.

“I think when you look at it in totality, sitting where we are now, I think we’re extremely pleased to get to this point,” Nurse said. “I think our team really battled with a couple of key guys missing. We’ve got some growth to do and we need to do it for sure to make a run [at the championship] again.”

Toronto Raptors

(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Truth is, the Raptors have been dealing with nagging injuries all season. They played again without Norman Powell and Marc Gasol in Brooklyn. A few days earlier against Minnesota, Ibaka sat against Minnesota because of the flu. Until Wednesday, it didn’t seem to matter.

“I think we’re used to (the injuries) at this point,” VanVleet said. “We could get a little lackadaisical sometimes, as you see. But I think (our adaptability) is a huge tool for us to be able to use in certain situations, and I think we realize it when we play against other teams, like how we’re able to take advantage on the other end.”

Without Leonard, the Raptors have had to rely on their other stars. And guys like Siakim and Lowry have really produced. Prior to Wednesday, Siakam had averaged 24.2 points, shooting 57.8 percent over this previous 10 games.

Nurse said the Raptors defense has also been strong.

“If I had to pick one reason (for the team’s success), I’d say it was our defense,” Nurse said on PTI. “This team really comes to play defense and we can pick a lot of different styles. But if I had to pick a player, I’d say Kyle Lowry. He does things that are all about winning. I’ve never seen a guy play harder and he does it night after night and it rubs off on the rest of the guys.”

The Raptors now lead the Boston Celtics by two games for the No. 2 seed in the East – all-important if they’re intent on avoiding Milwaukee until the Eastern Conference Finals.

There have been a number of long winning streaks in recent NBA history. The Miami Heat won 27 straight in 2013-14. Golden State Warriors began the 2015-16 season with 24 straight wins and the 2008 Houston Rockets won 22 in a row. But no one would have possibly guessed these Raptors would have something like that in them.

“I think we’re pretty good.  I think they believe in themselves. But we haven’t reached our ceiling yet,” Nurse said. “We have improvements to make and we’ve had a lot of injuries. If we can be lucky enough to get everyone healthy, we are hard to beat. That’s the biggest thing. We’re hard to beat.”