TORONTO — The Utah Jazz are looking for better things in 2019, while the Toronto Raptors hope the season continues on its successful course but are waiting eagerly for the eventual return of All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and center Jonas Valanciunas.
The Jazz will visit the Raptors to open the new year Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The Jazz (18-19) can take some solace from having played the most difficult schedule in the league so far, according to ESPN.
Utah already has played 21 away games (10-11) and will open 2019 with four more on the road before the schedule gets a little easier.
“The schedule was not the easiest,” said Jazz center Rudy Gobert who had 25 points and 16 rebounds Saturday in a 129-97 home win over the New York Knicks. “We had a lot of road trips. We lost some games we should have won. But we fought through it and we got better.”
Gobert senses that things will improve.
“I feel like everyone’s coming with a defensive mindset,” he said. “When we do that, we’re a good team.”
The Jazz were without point guard Ricky Rubio (bruised back and leg) and, in his place, Dante Exum had his first career double-double with 13 points and 13 assists. Forward Jae Crowder (bruised thumb) also missed the game Saturday. Both are listed as probable for Tuesday.
“I think that we played well,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game Saturday. “And the score in this case reflected that we played well. I think in the second half, we didn’t play as well. Part of it, for our group, is continuing to maintain our discipline and consistency.”
Meanwhile, the Raptors (27-11) will again be without Lowry on Tuesday. He has been out with a sore back. It is not certain when he will return, but he should return much sooner than Valanciunas, who is recovering from surgery on his dislocated left thumb.
The Raptors struggled through an unimpressive 95-89 home win over the Chicago Bulls Sunday and it is becoming apparent that they are missing Lowry and Valanciunas.
“We miss both those guys, without a doubt,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “One of things that I say is they are kind of like our two seniors on the team. They have been here the longest of anybody, and this kind of their team, and their investment in this organization has been the greatest. We miss a little bit of that, I think. It’s okay, let’s not go crazy. We got a win in an NBA game (Sunday) and we will take it and move on and try play with a little bit more pizzazz the next game.”
Toronto has won three straight home games and improved to 14-4 at home this season. The Raptors had an 8-7 record in December and have not had a losing month since January 2017, when they were 8-9.
Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 27 points in 34 minutes on Sunday, a career-best 13th straight game in which he has scored at least 20 points. He has averaged 29.7 points per game in that span.
The Raptors have struggled offensively in recent games.
“We have to figure it out obviously,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who had 10 points and seven assists Sunday. “Probably three of the worst quarters we’ve had in the last two games. We’ll figure it out. I think that if I had to choose, I would choose offensive struggles over defensive at this point of the year because we have the talent, we have the coaching and the schemes and stuff that we need.
“It’s just a matter of finding a rhythm with guys out. Certain teams are going to guard you certain ways, and (Sunday) was just an ugly game, but at this point of the year we’ll take it, find a way to win and move on to Tuesday.”
The Raptors defeated the Jazz 124-111 at Salt Lake City on Nov. 5 with Lowry scoring 17 points with 11 assists. Gobert had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Gobert has recorded 31 double-doubles in the first 37 games this season. The only player in Jazz history to record more double-doubles in the team’s first 37 games is John Stockton, who had 32 double-doubles during the 1989-90 season.