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Raptors capture sixth straight win, hold off feisty Pelicans 105-101

The Pelicans countered every punch the Raptors threw — until Fred VanVleet delivered the knockout haymaker.

New Orleans Pelicans v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

45-odd hours had passed since the Toronto Raptors defeated the Utah Jazz, but for Fred VanVleet, it was like no time at all had passed. Playing against the New Orleans Pelicans on an early Sunday night tip off, VanVleet wasn’t as efficient shooting the ball as he was on Friday, but he started hot and finished hot — and that’s all the Raptors needed.

Trailing by three with two minutes to go, VanVleet knocked down two huge three pointers in the next 30 seconds to give the Raptors a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. A Chris Boucher tip-in and a Khem Birch free throw sealed the 105-101 win.

It was the Raptors’ sixth straight win, and 11th in their past 15 games.

VanVleet finished with 32 points, although it took him 27 shots to get there. Credit goes to Devonte’ Graham and Jose Alvarado for their aggressive defense on VanVleet, which left him foul-hunting — and perhaps a bit frustrated.

Nick Nurse acknowledged after the game that the team needs to take a look at some of the different coverages Fred’s seeing and work to keep getting him good opportunities. “They’re gonna come at him, they’re blitzing him, that’s what we’re working on on our off days,” Nurse said.

VanVleet wasn’t the only Raptor with a big night; Pascal Siakam dropped in 32 of his own, on just 18 shots, and collected 10 boards and seven dimes too. Siakam has now dished five or more assists in seven straight games, and hit two or more three pointers in four straight; tonight he had season-highs in free throws (10) and three pointers made (three). Nurse said he thinks that, with the shoulder surgery and rehab behind him and his confidence building, Siakam’s back to being aggressive in taking the ball to people — and that’s “super encouraging.” Agreed!

I’d love to run through all the stats for you, but hey, that’s what Twitter is for. Check it out:

The Pelicans, for their part, didn’t let big games from VanVleet and Siakam intimidate them. The Raptors built an early lead, and kept pushing it to double digits — but the Pelicans kept coming back with runs of their own to keep it close. Brandon Ingram led the Pelicans with 22 points, and former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas — playing his first game in Toronto since December of 2018, when he was a Raptor — finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds.

The fourth quarter was close throughout, though the Raptors had their chances to put the game away early. Up two entering the frame, they blew two fast breaks early; first, Precious Achiuwa bobbled a ball out of bounds when he was all alone for a dunk, and then Svi Mykhailiuk threw a bad pass on a 2-on-1. The mistakes didn’t bite them right away — the Raps kept up the effort on the defensive end and managed to run off eight straight points of their own to push their lead to 91-83.

But as they always do, the unforced errors caught up to the Raptors. First, Khem Birch picked up his fifth foul; then, Siakam was called for an offensive foul. Barnes then threw a jump pass out of bounds — and the lead was suddenly back to two. After another turnover, this one from VanVleet, Valanciunas scored in the deep post to tie the game at 93.

That led to a Nick Nurse timeout, and a drawn-up pick-and-roll for Birch and VanVleet that resulted in a VanVleet three.

But Devonte’ Graham responded with a three of his own, followed by another long ball, this one from rookie Herb Jones, that put the Pelicans up 99-96.

All of which teed up VanVleet’s heroics. The scoresheet has VanVleet’s first huge three as a 34-footer, and the second as a 25-footer, but they both felt like 40-footers, watching on TV.

With VanVleet and Siakam playing like this, it’s not hard to see how the Raptors have won six straight!

The Raptors started big, with Khem Birch at centre, when Gary Trent Jr. was ruled out pre-game with ankle soreness. But it was VanVleet, again, who was the story early. It was no 24-point outburst, but VanVleet was in fine form in the first quarter. He dropped in 13 total points, including a trio of three-pointers, as the Raptors jumped out to an early 17-10 lead.

Beyond VanVleet, though, the “big” lineup caused problems for the Pelicans throughout the first half; Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes all took advantage of mismatches to get to the rim and score. The Raptors aren’t a team that throws away their offense (such as it is) to hunt mismatches, but tonight, they simply came in the flow of the offense. After all, someone on the Pelicans had to guard a bigger player!

But mismatch or not, the Pelicans didn’t let the early deficit derail them. They responded with a quick 11-0 run, featuring five points from Nickeil Alexander-Walker and a pair of threes from Jose Alvarado, to take a 24-22 lead. VanVleet had one more three in him late to give the Raptors the 1-point lead after 1.

They say basketbal is a game of runs, and the Raptors, with VanVleet on the bench early in the second, ran off one of their own. Svi Mykhailiuk, playing meaningful minutes for the first time in a while, started it off with a gorgeous reverse layup. Chris Boucher and Barnes executed a perfect double-team of Jonas Valanciunas to force a turnover, then Boucher wisely made an extra pass to Barnes in the corner, who converted a three (after about four bounces on the rim). Precious Achiuwa and Siakam also scored on the run, and the Raptors soon held a 43-32 lead.

But the Pelicans again punched back, this one a 14-0 stretch in which the Raptors missed seven straight shots, including two airballs. In fact, the Raptors scored only two field goals over the final seven minutes of the second, and were lucky to get to halftime with a 49-48 lead.

Boucher and Achiuwa both had solid games off the bench, combining for 12 points and 17 boards. Nurse praised their energy post-game, saying that energy was a huge boost in holding off the Pelicans’ surges. He also noted that, along with eight boards, Boucher tipped multiple additional rebounds to keep them alive — and out of the hands of Valanciunas.

The Raptors are back in action on Tuesday, when they close out their homestand against the league-best Phoenix Suns.