ROUNDBALL DAILY

Kawhi’s gone, three starters are hurt, and yet the Raptors keep on winning

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Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and the Raptors have kept up their winning ways even without some of their best players.

Kawhi Leonard is gone, his meteoric time in Toronto having passed in what seems like the blink of an eye, a shimmering Larry O.B. in the trophy case serving as a reminder that his time with the Raptors was actually real.

Future MVP candidate Pascal Siakam, who was averaging 25.1 points and 8 boards per game, has been out since injuring his groin on December 18. Defensive anchor Marc Gasol also went down in that disastrous game, a win over the Pistons, as did key-basket-getter and defender Norman Powell. Gasol hurt his hamstring; Powell suffered a shoulder injury. Neither have returned to the lineup.

According to beat reporter Josh Lewenberg, the Raps have lost more wins due to injury than any other team in the league:

And yet … the Raptors keep winning.

Toronto entered Sunday (Jan. 12) with a 25-13 record, good for fourth in the front-loaded Eastern Conference, a game ahead of the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers.

The Raptors are 6-5 since losing Siakam, Gasol and Powell, including a reassuring 113-97 win in Boston.

They’re doing it with defense, toughness, great coaching and leadership from the still somehow underrated Kyle Lowry and the wily Fred Van Vleet.

Lowry poured in 30 in the win over the C’s. He continues to bury big shot after big shot, play pestering defense and make right decision after right decision. The five-time All-Star still doesn’t get his due as one of the game’s best floor generals, and most of the conversation about the 33-year-old seems to revolve around whether he’s starting to decline, or whether the Raptors should trade him.

But he deserves better than that.

Lowry is still one of the best players in the game, capable of carrying a team into playoff contention on his shoulders alone. He’s bulldog-tough — Philly-tough, grinds out every possession and plays hard-nose defense. There’s an old saying that teams excel when their best player is also their hardest worker– and that’s exactly the case with Lowry.

His mindset has rubbed off on the rest of the roster, including Van Vleet, who starred at Wichita State and helped lead the Shockers to a stunning Final Four appearance in 2013 and an undefeated regular season (31-0) and No. 1 seed in 2014. His clutch gene carried on last year, when he hit some huge shots in the NBA Finals help Toronto earn its first-ever title.

The 25-year-old Van Vleet is the perfect complement to Lowry, and his toughness and shot-making ability means the Raptors can have a game-controlling point on the floor at all times– if not two of them.

With Powell out, Terence Davis, a 6-4 rookie guard from Ole Miss, has gotten his chance to shine, and he’s taken it– providing key three-point shooting and stubborn defense. Davis dropped 23 in his first career start in Charlotte on Wednesday, and knocked down four of eight three-point attempts. He’s been a key contributor off the bench.

Serge Ibaka has stepped up in Gasol’s absence, providing more scoring and even bigger minutes inside. The Raptors don’t employ anybody who doesn’t play tough defense, and guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (who often times plays bigger than his 6-6 frame) and OG Anunoby are all hustle and heart. Anunoby’s got some offensive skill, too.

Head coach Nick Nurse has done a terrific job in developing a winning culture, and the Raptors are executing it no matter who’s on the floor.

Dismiss them if you want, but if the defending champs get healthy come playoff time, they’re going to be really dangerous once again. And this period without some of its stars just might serve to make an already-deep squad even better.

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