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Raptors hold of Pelicans, start post-All-Star stretch of season with 115-110 victory

Jakob Poeltl was dominant again as the Raps used a big third and a bend-but-don’t-break fourth to hold off Brandon Ingram and the Pelicans.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

For much of this underwhelming 2022-23 season, the third quarter has spelled doom for the Toronto Raptors. But the team, with its fresh-look, balanced lineup, flipped the script tonight, outscoring the New Orleans Pelicans 38-32 in the third to take the control of a game they’d eventually win 110-115.

Jakob Poeltl once again showed why the Raptors traded draft capital for him, scoring 21 points on 11 shots and hauling in a career-high 18 rebounds. (“18, that’s a good number,” Nick Nurse said after the game.) Pascal Siakam led the Raptors with 26 points, and added five assists. Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. scored 18 apiece.

Brandon Ingram led all scorers with 36 points, including 14 in the fourth as the Pelicans made a late push. CJ McCollum added 23, including 11 of his own in the fourth, and had five assists.

Former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas, finally playing in front of a Scotiabank Arena crowd since he was traded halfway through the 2018-19 season, added 12 points and 12 boards.

Prior to the game, the Raptors announced that Fred VanVleet was questionable due to personal reasons (he was quickly downgraded to “out”; we’ve yet to hear of any more details regarding his absence.) That news meant we didn’t see the full-strength Raptors we were all hoping for, but hopefully that’s no more than a game or two away. Gary Trent Jr. started in VanVleet’s place.

Holding a solid 54-45 halftime lead heading into the third, a series of quick early foul calls sapped any momentum the Raptors had. Brandon Ingram, who had a quiet first half, quickly scored on a three and a pullup to cut Toronto’s lead to 60-54.

The Raps responded with two Siakam free throws and a Trent Jr. fastbreak layup to restore their 10-point lead. When Scottie Barnes swatted away an Ingram layup and Anunoby found Siakam for a fastbreak bucket plus the and-1, the Raptors lead was finally back to 12—and a Siakam three and two more free throws soon made it 15.

Jose Alvarado led a 7-0 Pelicans run to cut Toronto’s lead to 8, but the Raptors finished the frame strong, with Siakam hitting a stepback, Achiuwa hitting two free throws, and Siakam finishing an and-1 for a 7-0-run of their own.

Chris Boucher finished things with a soaring one-handed slam from just within the free throw line, then blocked a Naji Marshall shot at the buzzer to preserve the 15-point lead heading into the fourth.

With Poeltl and Siakam resting to start the final frame, Valanciunas was finally able to get something going. He scored on two straight paint buckets, and CJ McCollum scored from downtown, cutting the Raps’ lead to 10. Brandon Ingram kept the pressure on, hitting a three of his own; a Jonas Valanciunas free throw cut the lead to six, 100-94, with just over six minutes to play.

But you all know the fourth quarter is Poeltl time, right? The big man had two putbacks in the next minute — one of them and and-1 — to push Toronto’s lead back to 11, 105-94, with 5:10 to go. Poeltl then scored twice more — including another putback — and had a sensational block on the defensive end, swatting away a Herb Jones dunk attempt. An Anunoby pick-six dunk then got the crowd on their feet — and kept the lead at 10 with 2:20 to go.

But a series of offensive miscues — including a turnover, and a shot-clock violation with 90 seconds to go — gave the Pelicans life again. McCollum and Ingram scored (Ingram from downtown) and suddenly the lead was a mere three points with 1:11 to go.

The Raptors unsurprisingly went to Pascal Siakam to run the show, and although he missed a driving layup, he collected his own rebound and then got the Raptors into their new bread-and-butter — a pick-and roll with Poeltl — that lead to Poeltl splitting a pair. After Ingram scored on a tough jumper over Anunoby, Siakam found Trent above the break, and GTJ buried a three with 12.3 seconds to go that gave the Raptors a five-point lead, and sealed the deal.

After the game, Nick Nurse praised the team’s rim defense, saying they made the Pelicans take tough shots; he said he was pleased with the team’s “concentration, effort, and execution” (although he added they gave up too many threes). “We made a few mistakes, but nothing like we were making three months ago,” he said, adding that “we’ve just been getting a little bit better, making progress” and that the the team has done “a heck of a lot of work” — and added a good rim protector.

For his part, Poeltl said that the biggest adjustment for him with his new team has been on the defensive end — the aggression is a major difference, where he has to put himself out of position and trust his teammates to have his back — and vice-versa. He’s getting used to it, he said, and over time it’ll become second nature.

Nurse added that Poeltl was “humongous at getting us extra possessions” down the stretch, and his ability to protect the rim was also huge. He also praised Poeltl for winning a late jump ball, something the Raptors have struggled with lately. He also said that when the Pelicans went to Larry Nance Jr. to hopefully slow down Siakam, Jak was able to make them pay for that counter move with his rebounding and shot blocking.

The vibes were immaculate ahead of the game, as Caribbean Heritage Night had the crowd hyped up. The Pan Fantasy Band played the national anthems on the steal drums, and the North Side Crew danced the Raptors starters onto the floor in Caribbean-inspired attire; unsurprisingly the crowd was super into it. It didn’t hurt that the Raptors started off forcing a turnover and an airball from the Pels, with a sweet Siakam stepback J sandwiched in between. Poeltl then scored on a dunk off a sweet drive and dish from Barnes.

Still, the Raptors were just 2-for-8 to start, and the Pelicans finally got on the board when Ingram scored at the 8:50 mark of the first. When the first timeout came at the 6:52 mark, the teams were tied 6-6 and had combined for a 6-19 shooting performance. All-Star Break rust, anyone?

With the Raptors leading 10-7, Siakam led a fastbreak that saw him spin into the paint and find Boucher in the corner for three; Siakam followed that up with another sweet stepback J to make it 15-9 Raps.

The Pels responded, as Alvarado had a strip and a sweet fast break dish to Naji Marshall to make it 15-11 Raps; that was followed by a couple of Trey Murphy free throws, and finally a Brandon Ingram three that gave the Pelicans their fist lead, 16-15.

But Jeff Dowtin Jr. and Anunoby hit back-to-back threes, and Precious Achiuwa scored on a nice drive just before the buzzer to give the Raptors the 23-19 lead at the break.

The offensive process didn’t look great for the Raptors early; I think we can chalk that up to the All-Star Break, VanVleet’s absence, and Trent and Barnes still developing chemistry with Poeltl. Poeltl himself remained an offensive focal point, running multiple screen and rolls and surveying the D with the ball from the top of the key. The Raps new centre finished the quarter with 4 points, 4 boards and 1 assist.

The Raptors rolled out a curious lineup to start the second frame — out of necessity of course, with VanVleet out — with Dowtin, Barnes, Anunoby, Boucher and Achiuwa. (I guess that tells us just how comfortable Malachi Flynn should get in the doghouse.)

Dowtin gave a good showing, perhaps indicating he’s read for more; Nick Nurse seems to think so. He said they left Dowtin out for an abnormally long stretch in the first because he was playing so well — particularly on the defensive end.

O.G. started the second frame with a pick-six steal and a fast-break and-1, carrying over some more solid Caribbean vibes after Kevin Lyttle’s quarter-break performance.

A Precious Achiuwa block of a CJ McCollum drive led to another Anuoby bucket — a jam this time — to keep the vibes going.

Barnes then drained a three over Jonas Valanciunas, part of rough stretch for JV, who started the game with two fouls, a turnover and 0-for-2 shooting. Barnes then hit another three, giving the Raptors a double-digit lead at 38-28 and forcing Willie Green to call for time.

That impressive run allowed the Raptors to give Pascal Siakam an extended rest — more than six minutes — and when Jakob Poeltl tipped in a Dowtin miss with 3:43 to go in the first, the Raptors had a double-digit lead.

But the Raptors quickly let New Orleans go on a quick 7-2 run, forcing Nick Nurse to call for time. The full complement of starters returned and settled things somewhat, but an unlucky swing happened when a sweet Scottie Barnes finish was ruled an offensive foul, and CJ McCollum drained a three the other way.

The Raptors caught a break of their own with three seconds left when Josh Richardson was called for a foul, then complained enough to get t’ed up. Trent hit the techincal, but Siakam could only split the two freebies and the Raptors went into halftime with a 54-45 lead.

Poeltl finished the half with 11 and 10, and his impact was felt pretty much everywhere. I wouldn’t say the Raptors played particularly well, but with Jak protecting the rim, getting rebounds and throwing outlets, and settling the offense from the to of the key, even when things didn’t look great they looked… acceptable. Which is more than can be said for a lot of halves this season!

The good vibes continued into the half with Patrice Roberts half-time show. The music and the dancing was [fire emoji], and things looked good once the quarter started: OG Anunoby opened the scoring with a hard drive on JV, and he allllmoooost threw down the hammer on his former teammate, coming up just short (but the ball still trickled in).

All in all it was an entertaining game, and a good process-leads-to-results finish. The Raptors have now won 6 of their last 7 games, and head to Detroit to play the struggling Pistons on Saturday afternoon.