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VanVleet explodes for 24 in third, Raptors beat Jazz 122-108

VanVleet’s triple-double erases embarrassing first half against depleted Utah roster. 

Utah Jazz v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

It was another “Welcome Toronto” night at Scotiabank Arena tonight, and the Toronto Raptors were perhaps a little too welcoming to the visiting Utah Jazz in the first half. Down all their starters, the pseudo-Jazz came out on fire, racking up 40 first quarter points en route to a 62-48 halftime lead.

It took another seven minutes or so for Fred VanVleet to decide “f**k this” and put an end to the BS.

In a five-minute stretch for which there really are no appropriate adjectives, VanVleet scored 20 points — including an individual 15-0 run that gave the Raptors an 85-84 lead. He also had three rebounds, two steals and a block into same stretch. The Raptors took a 94-92 lead into the fourth and never looked back.

All told, VanVleet finished the third with 24 points, on 8-of-8 shooting, and ended the night with a 37-10-10 triple double — the first of his career.

Scottie Barnes also filled the stat sheet with 11 points, nine board and six assists. Eric Paschall had a red-hot first quarter and finished the night with 29 points for the Jazz, while Elijah Hughes opened some eyes with a 7-for-12 shooting night from downtown. Hughes also paced the Jazz with eight rebounds.

After the game, VanVleet said the Raptors “didn’t respect the game in the first quarter, and were fighting uphill after that,” but he was proud of the way they responded. “There’s no excuses, no bums in the NBA, those are real NBA players, those guys can play,” he said, “and we didn’t answer the bell early.

“We had some uncomfortable conversions a couple times,” he went on, “but we stayed together and came out the other side.”

Nurse said he didn’t scream or yell at halftime, just focused on the things that needed to improve. “We show the clips, make some adjustments, and get out there and play a little better,” he says. That shows a lot of trust in a young team.

The third quarter looked more promising to start, as a quick-5-0 run brought the Raptors within single-digits. The teams traded mini-runs for the first half of the frame, with Toronto closing within seven at one point before the Jazz pushed it right back to 14. Hughes and Pascal combined for 20 in the quarter, with Hughes knocking down three long balls.

Then the real show began.

VanVleet’s run started innocuously enough, with a short jumper of an inbounds play. He followed that up with a three, and then after taking a loose ball coast-to-coast and getting two free throws, you could feel something special happening.

And the thing about VanVleet is, for all of his offensive brilliance, you know you can’t ignore his defensive chops either. He was handling all of the scoring load and getting right up into Hughes and Fitts, doing exactly what Nurse alluded to and making it difficult for them to get downhill and open up scoring opportunities.

After Fitts missed a layup, Fred drained another pull-up three, Lowry-style, then blocked a Trent Forrest layup, collected the loose ball and took it right down Hassan Whiteside’s throat for a layup — and one. He stripped Whiteside on the next play and drained another pull-up J to cap the 15-0 run.

The Jazz finally scored, but Fred wasn’t done. He had one more layup in him, then he found Chris Boucher underneath twice; the first dish led to two Boucher free throws, and the second to a Boucher layup.

VanVleet then capped the quarter with a pull-up three with five seconds to go.

Post-game, Nurse described VanVleet’s play as “incredible, all the way through the quarter,” and said he almost couldn’t believe the final three-pointer went in, it was so surreal. He praised Fred’s defense, but said the scoring on this night was even more impressive — but he also called out the rebounding, and impressive it was for the smallest guy on the court to haul in 10 boards.

Fred himself said it was the defense that got him going, and picking up the Jazz guards full court; he thought that helped the Raptors get the reins back a little bit, and once they had that control, the momentum shifted. It’s a long, long game, he said, and the Raptors have been on both sides of those games — and in the end, experience wins out.

The fourth quarter almost seemed like an afterthought at that point; even though Toronto’s lead was only two heading into the final frame, you felt that there was no way the team was going to waste that third-quarter performance. And with Fred on the bench to start the quarter, it seemed like the Raptors felt that way too.

After the two teams traded a handful of buckets to start the frame, the Raptors went on an 11-2 run, bookended by two Gary Trent three pointers, that left the Jazz gassed and reeling. All that was left was for VanVleet to come back in and wrap up the triple double, which he did first by corralling his 10th rebound off his own missed three, then finding Precious Achiuwa out of the pick-and-roll for the alley-oop jam.

VanVleet now trails his pal Kyle Lowry on the Raptors’ all-time triple double list by, uh, 15 — but Lowry never scored 37 in any of his triple doubles.

One thing that has seemed true of the Nick Nurse-era Toronto Raptors from day one is that they always play hard. That mentality led to the successful 2019-20 season when everyone counted them out, and launched five million “Raptors fake comeback” tweets last season.

Well you surely couldn’t say the during the first half last night; they sleptwalk through the entire half, on both ends of the floor. The Jazz shot 10-for-22 from downtown in the half, most of them wide-open, and scored 22 points in the paint. The Raptors, meanwhile, shot 18-for-53 and missed 21(!) three pointers in the first half.

How bad was it? The official Raptors Twitter account, usually pretty active during games, shared a total of THREE first-half highlights.

Post-game, Nick Nurse called out the defense specifically, saying the Raptors just weren’t effectively staying in front of the ball, which was leading to easy points at the rim and open corner threes.

And if you’ll recall Wednesday night, that’s the second straight game the Raptors came out completely flat.

Things got out of hand early, with Hughes and Paschall draining early corner threes; that led to a quick Nurse timeout, down 13-5 at the 8:21 mark. Not much changed after the break though, as Paschall remained red-hot through the entire first quarter. He scored a season-high 17 in the first nine minutes of the frame, going 6-10 from the field. Malik Fitts, meanwhile, scored his only bucket of the quarter on a buzzer-beating three from halfcourt, giving the Jazz an even 40.

On the Raptors’ side, no one had it going, but Gary Trent Jr. had a particularly rough start; he missed all three of his first quarter shots and picked up an offensive fool for good measure.

Sadly, the second was more of the same; the Raptors never got closer than 11 in the frame, and trailed by as much as 17 at one point.

The Raptors resume play on Sunday, when they host Jonas Valanciunas and the New Orleans Pelicans.