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Weirdo lineup propels Raptors to improbable 127-115 win over Nuggets

The altitude looked like it was getting to the Raptors in the third, but Birch, Banton and Boucher changed the game in the fourth 

Toronto Raptors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Altitude, schmaltitude.

That surely seemed to be the Toronto Raptors’s approach tonight, as they shook off the effects of the rare Colorado air to notch an impressive, improbably 127-115 over the Denver Nuggets.

Although the Raptors deftly maintained a small lead for most of the first 30 minutes of the game, things looked to be shifting Denver’s way late in the third. Toronto’s defensive energy waned, the Nuggets were scoring with ease, and a fourth-quarter Denver rout seemed almost inevitable.

Instead, mad scientist Nick Nurse trotted out a bizarro world lineup of Scottie Barnes, Dalano Banton, Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Thad Young to start the fourth. Buoyed by the fact that reigning MVP Nikola Jokic was getting a rest, the weirdo lineup outscored the Nuggets 20-7 over the first 6.5 minutes of the period to take a six-point lead and all but seal the game.

Even when Jokic returned, the Raptors kept rolling, pushing the lead to 117-110. It was then that Barnes and Boucher connected on the dagger.

After a Young steal on the defensive end, Barnes took the ball the other way. He went right at Jokic, but his baby hook sailed long. Still, Barnes stuck with it, fought through Jokic to grab his own rebound, and then found Boucher in the corner. Boucher drained the triple to push Toronto’s lead to 120-110 with less than two minutes to go.

Those were the biggest three of Boucher’s 21 points. He added 13 rebounds and four blocks too. Pascal Siakam led all scorers with 33, and he added seven assists, while Scottie Barnes dropped a near triple-double — 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists, along with two steals.

Jokic poured in 26/10/7 for the Nuggets, and Bones Hyland added 17 off the bench.

The win is Toronto’s third in a row — and their first in Denver since 2016. Perhaps more importantly, with the Cleveland Cavaliers losing to the Chicago Bulls, the Raptors are now suddenly just one game back of the Cavs for that all-important sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

The two teams gave us an entertaining first half, one that saw the Nuggets jump out to an early six-point lead, and the Raptors promptly use a 9-0 to take it back — and they wouldn’t trail again for the rest of the half.

But the scoreboard wasn’t really the story in the first half. The story was Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam giving us every ounce of Vision 6’9” we can handle.

The pair combined for 39 of Toronto’s 65 first-half points, and they shot 15-for-24 from the floor. They also combined for nine assists — most of them to each other.

With Pascal, some of this is old hat by now — the driving, the court awareness, the touch at the rim. But with Barnes, we’re seeing the complete package come together more and more every night.

The Raptors also got a great first half from Boucher, who finished with six points and six boards, and protected the rim with authority, swatting away four Denver shots. Of course, no Chris Boucher game is complete without a boneheaded mistake, and Chris gave as an over-aggressive closeout on DeMarcus Cousins that led to a blow-by and an and-1. It’s the full Boucher experience!

For the Nuggets, naturally, Nikola Jokic also gave the Raptors every ounce of MVP they could handle. He scored 17 points in the first half,

One entertaining and frustrating subplot that emerged was high-energy Scottie Barnes annoying the hell out of the MVP. There was definitely some physical play as a result, including when Jokic chicken-winged the rookie on a screen, and then gave Barnes a little shove as they wrested on the free throw line as well. Later in the fourth, Jokic would steamroll Barnes in transition (though that one, at least, was called).As much I love seeing Scottie get under anyone’s skin, some of those Jokic body checks, I’ll tell you... I would definitely not one to be on the receiving end of one of those.

Overall Denver stepped up their defense as the third quarter dawned, holding the Raptors to and quickly taking the lead, 74-73, on a Will Barton three-pointer.

Fortunately the Raptors took it right back when Precious Achiuwa knocked down his fourth three-pointer of the night. (That’s a career-high, by the way.)

Unfortunately, that’s about when fatigue showed up. The Raptors — already playing poor in transition, and ineffective defending the paint — suddenly completely fell asleep in both areas, as the Nuggets used a 12-4 run to take an 86-80 lead. 10 of those points came in the paint (the other two were free throws). The Nuggets scored 36 points in the third, on 120-of-18 shooting. At that point, it sure seemed like the Raptors were ready to throw in the towel.

But Barnes opened the fourth with a triple, giving the Raptors hope. Bones Hyland hit a fall-away three from the corner as the shot-clock expired to get it right back, but the shot didn’t unnerve the Raptors.

Taking advantage of Jokic’s absence, Birch scored a couple of buckets, including an oop from Thad Young that surely tested Birch’s sore knee, and the Raptors closed Denver’s lead to 104-102.

The Raptors briefly took the lead on a Young and-1, but Hyland took it right back with another three. The veteran Young then stripped Boogie Cousins on one end and floated in a teardrop the other way, giving the Raptors a 109-107 lead — one they would never relinquish.

There sure wasn’t a shortage of highlights for the Raptors tonight, as every rotation player made an impact. Even Armoni Brooks, nominally the 15th guy on the roster, got his moment — he got the call to start for the injured Fred VanVLeet! Brooks’ first Raptors bucket, a three, came the way it was preordained — dribbling around a screen, looking for his own, lighning-quick release, splash.

Then there was Achiuwa, with his four threes, and Banton, with his hesitation dribble-drive in the fourth, then Birch with the sick alley-oop from Young, and Young himself with the lovely steal and teardrop in the fourth. Even Yuta Watanabe came in late and drained a three!

The win was unlikely and improbable. And it was one of Toronto’s most enjoyable games of the season.