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Raptors squeak out late 117-115 win vs. lottery-bound Rockets, clinch 5th place

It was rarely pretty, but pretty fun at times, especially watching Pascal Siakam have his way with another helpless opponent.

Houston Rockets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors were well off their well-honed defensive game for most of tonight’s contest against the Houston Rockets, but held their ground when it mattered most, winning 117-115

Up by two points with 4.5 seconds remaining, the Raptors nearly forced Houston into a five-second violation, then stoutly defended the rim on an Alperen Sengun post-up that bounced off the rim and into the hands of Scottie Barnes as time expired.

That last desperate Rockets possession followed a Gary Trent Jr. go-ahead bucket — a slightly wild inner in traffic as the shot clock wound down, that somehow was never in doubt.

Trent finished the game with 26 points. The Raptors were once again led by the all-around play of Pascal Siakam, who finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists.

Big time late buckets from Thad Young and Scottie Barnes paved the way for Trent’s game-winner.

With the win, the Raptors move to 48-33 on the season, and clinch fifth place in the Eastern Conference. (They still have a chance to catch the Philadelphia 76ers for fourth, but Philly would have to lose both its games, and the Raptors would have to win in New York on Sunday.

After falling behind early and playing catch-up the entire game, the Raptors finally took the lead, 109-107, on a Barnes drive with 3:40 to go. Barnes immediately followed that up with a breakaway dunk that had Scotiabank Arena hopping.

The Rockets didn’t go quietly — they tied the score at 115 on a Kevin Porter Jr. drive. But Trent’s heroics and the defense’s final stand made the difference.

Porter led all scorers with 35 points; he chipped 10 boards too. Josh Christopher scored 20 for Houston, while Sengun finished with 17.

The Raptors were one again without OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet; Armoni Brooks got the backcourt start alongside Gary Trent Jr. After the double-big Achiuwa-Birch lineup put the Raptors in a big hole on Thursday, it’s safe to say Nick Nurse had seen everything he needs to out of that group.

Brooks’ position in the starting lineup was also an indication of just how seriously the Raptors were taking this game (not very); first-quarter appearances from Malachi Flynn and Justin Champagnie were another indication, and if that wasn’t enough, well, the team’s awful execution in the first 18 minutes definitely told the story.

Need some stats to back up that thought? The Raptors had the ninth-best defensive rating in the league coming into tonight’s game, and the third-best over the last 15 games.

And yet here was the league’s worst team scoring 52 points in the first 15.5 minutes, on 66% shooting, including 6-of-14 from downtown. The Raptors, meanwhile, started the game 5-for-23 from the field, and 1-of-7 from downtown.

Yeah, it was that kind of start.

Toronto fell behind 9-2 early, and were playing catch-up the entire first half. Siakam led the way early, scoring two buckets and grabbing two offensive rebounds, including a putback that cut Houston’s lead to 13-11.

The Rockets then proceeded to go on an 18-4 run to build a 31-15 lead. Jae’Sean Tate paced the Rockets early, scoring 9 points in the first seven minutes to help them build their lead. Porter Jr. picked it up from there; he scored 15 in the first quarter, hitting three of his first four three-point attempts, as the Rockets built a 16-point lead; Houston finished the opening frame up 36-20.

The Rockets then scored the first four points of the second, pushing their lead to 40-20.

Rockets stretched their lead to 53-30 before the Raptors finally woke up. Pascal Siakam scored 11 of Toronto’s next 19 points as the Raps cut the Rockets' lead to 58-49, and finally looked a little more like the team we’ve come to enjoy watching — scrambling on defense, running the floor, and crashing the offensive glass.

Siakam finished the half with 18 points and five rebounds, and the Raptors entered halftime down 66-57.

After halftime, Siakam came out with the same energy, scoring 7 of Toronto’s first 13 points as the Raptors cut lead all the way down to two, 72-70; the Raptors would tie the game at 78 few minutes later on a Trent three-pointer, his second of the half.

The Rockets weren’t done, though. A quick 13-5 Houston run, fuelled by Christopher and Sengun, left the Raptors playing catch-up once again, trailing by 10 heading into the fourth.

Perhaps looking for a spark, Nick Nurse inserted Yuta Watanabe into the lineup to start the fourth quarter; Watanbe converted an acrobatic and-1 the cut the Houston lead back down to 5, and after a Josh Christopher three, back-to-back jams from Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent brought Toronto within four.

Trent Jr. tied it up three minutes later with a three from the top of the arc.

Up next: The Raptors finish out the regular season on the road against the New York Knicks on Sunday.