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Raptors open homestand against Jazz

TORONTO -- The Toronto Raptors will try to keep the pressure on the first-place Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings when they open a three-game homestand Friday night against the Utah Jazz.

The Raptors (32-14) are 1 1/2 games behind the Celtics (35-14) and take a 17-3 record at the Air Canada Centre -- the second-best home record in the NBA behind the San Antonio Spurs' 20-3 mark -- into the homestand.

The Raptors came off a three-day break Wednesday to defeat the Atlanta Hawks 108-93 at Philips Arena and are 6-4 in their past 10 games.

They used the days off for some practice after losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday.

"I think we got back to our defensive fundamentals," said reserve point guard Fred VanVleet, who scored a team-high 19 points. "A little bit better rhythm within our offense, passing the ball, we had it moving a little better. Guys were able to knock down shots and just play unselfish basketball."

The Jazz (20-28) are 6-19 on the road after they rallied to defeat the Detroit Pistons 98-95 in overtime on Wednesday to go 4-6 in their past 10. The Jazz were coming off a loss to the Hawks on Monday.

"We were down late and were able to string together some stops," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game on Wednesday. "It's good to win. We missed a few layups and some open shots, but we made them when we needed to."

The Raptors already have a win over the Jazz, a 109-100 verdict on Nov. 3 in Salt Lake City, and are going for a season sweep of Utah for the fourth time in the past five seasons.

Toronto has not lost the season series to Utah since 2012-13.

As the Raptors press to gain home-court advantage through the conference finals, coach Dwane Casey still has concerns, particularly with the way the team has performed late in close games.

"Where we're having an issue is at the end of games," Casey told the Toronto Sun. "We've changed dramatically from being one of the top offensive teams in the league to bottom five in the league in the last five minutes."

In games in which the difference in the score is five points or fewer with five minutes or fewer remaining, the Raptors have gone from sixth and 10th in field-goal percentage and points-per-game during clutch time last season to 21st and 17th in those categories this season.

"A lot of that is. ... disorganization between what we're doing as far as moving the ball, ball movement, playing to our triggers, and that's what we've got to get back to," Casey said. "We kind of fell back from that, some of it is personnel-driven, different personnel in the game (at) the end of the game, whether it's a defensive unit that we have in, so we have to get that organized as a staff to make sure guys understand what we're doing last five minutes of the game.

"We have to continue to play in our triggers and not go into so-called 'called' plays the last five minutes of the game."

"Last year, we always reverted to going to a lot of isolation every time down," Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said. "This time around, we are still getting a feel for trying to move the ball, trying to put the isolation game in and trying to figure it out. There are so many elements that we are still trying to figure out rather than going with what works or whatever has been working throughout the game and carrying it over to that moment."

Meanwhile, there have been reports of tension with the Jazz as trade rumors abound and the team has struggled since posting a 13-11 record after winning their sixth straight game on Dec. 4. Jazz guard/forward Joe Ingles suggests that the reports are exaggerated.

"The end of the day it's really only us and the coaching staff and the guys in the locker room that knows what's going on," Ingles told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Everyone else just assumes and makes assumptions or does what they have to do. I love how we've stuck together."

"We have a bunch of guys who want to get better and want to be better, that's been our biggest thing," Jazz rookie guard Donovan Mitchell said. "When you have guys like Joe who defend our locker room and our team, it's just leaders like that who keep guys together."

Updated January 25, 2018

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