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VanVleet, Raptors hold off Nuggets’ third-quarter rally to win 125-110

It looked a little dicey heading into the fourth, but led by a brilliant VanVleet effort, the Raptors finally got back in the win column.

Denver Nuggets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors looked fantastic through 2.5 quarters last night, and although they very nearly let the game get away from them late in the third, they had enough in the tank to eke out a 125-110 win over the Denver Nuggets.

Leading by six heading into the final frame, the Raptors missed their first four shots of the fourth and within three minutes, what was once a 24-point lead was down to three. It stayed there until Fred VanVleet, who had a sensational night, returned with about 8 minutes to go; he immediately drained a three to restore the six-point lead and get the crowd back into the game. Pascal Siakam then finally found a way to take advantage of some mismatches, scoring over Christian Braun then dropping an and-1 over Jamal Murray. A Poeltl-to-Anunoby alley-oop, followed by a Gary Trent Jr. pick-six, pushed the lead back to 12 and forced Mike Malone to call timeout with 6:51 remaining.

A deeeeep three from VanVleet over Nikola Jokic with three minutes to go restored the 15-point lead and the Raptors cruised from there.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Raptors — and is the fourth loss in a row for the West-leading Nuggets.

VanVleet was the big show in this one, scoring 36 points and dropping 7 dimes; he also shot 8-for-12 from downtown. Scottie Barnes scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished 5 assists. O.G. Anunoby chipped in 24 points, and once again spent the night doing everything he could to slow down the reigning MVP.

Jokic still managed to score 28 points on 13 shots, and added 8 rebounds and 7 assists. Michael Porter Jr. added 23, shooting 5-of-8 from downtown. Jamal Murray, playing in Canada for the first time since 2018(!), scored just 14 points on 18 shots.

Credit for that must go to Barnes and VanVleet, who shared the assignment on Murray and were able to lock him down. Before the game, Nurse called Murray a “hard guard” (as in, he’s difficult to guard, not… whatever the hell you were thinking), saying he makes shots even when he’s totally covered. “You’re guarding the heck out of him, and he still makes it,” Nurse said. “Not a whole lot you can do.” Whether it was playing in front of family and friends, or his sore knee, or just facing the effort from Barnes and VanVleet, Murray and those ridiculous shots were kept in check in this one.

The response from the Raptors in the fourth, after seeing the lead dwindle the way it did, was impressive. But you’ll be shocked to hear that the game only settled down once all the starters returned (although Gary Trent Jr. did play a chunk of minutes with four other starters in the period). But every member of the Raptors reserves were on the negative side of the plus-minus tonight, “led” by Precious Achiuwa, who was a -13. All five starters were double-digit net positives.

Once VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl (12 points and 11 rebounds) returned in the fourth, running the show from the top of the key, the Raptors looked much more settled, and got back to moving the ball and getting everyone involved. Every Raptor who played, scored in the frame. And on the other end, Poeltl, despite the foul trouble, anchored the D and helped Trent, Anunoby and VanVleet play more aggressive on the perimeter.

But boy, did that third period put some stress on the collective psyche of the Scotiabank Arena crowd. With the Raptors leading 88-64 after a Siakam runner, Poeltl picked up his fourth foul, prompting Nick Nurse to bring Achiuwa back into the game; that seemed to turn the tide, as the Nuggets ran up an 18-7 run over the next three minutes to cut the lead down to 12.

After Porter Jr. hit a three that cut the lead to 95-86, the Raptors missed three clean jumpers in one possession, wasting an excellent (and rare, lately) Achiuwa effort on the glass. A final spurt from the Nuggets cut the Raptors lead to just 6, 98-92, heading into the fourth.

The Nuggets made a couple of adjustments that opened up the floor for them. For one, they got Jokic the ball on the move a little bit, opening up the floor for him to either go to the hoop or find a cutter; he had 12 points and 3 assists in the period. On the other end, the Nuggets started blitzing VanVleet out of the pick and roll, and without Poeltl, Freddy didn’t have the same outlet partner (and all too often it seemed his other teammates were standing around). Fred did all he could, scoring 12 of his own in the frame, but he didn’t get enough from his teammates, especially Siakam, who only scored four points on four shots in the period.

Siakam struggled once again on the night, scoring just 12 points on 16 shots, and only notching 4 assists. It’s the fifth time in the last 6 games Siakam has failed to score 20.

The Raptors looked good early, moving the ball with purpose on the opening possession, resulting in a Poeltl bucket. Overall, everyone on the court was getting involved, including Siakam who, while he didn’t score, looked aggressive early; although he missed his first three shots, two were drives to the rim and the third was a clean J that rimmed out. Poeltl tracked down two of Siakam’s misses, and scored the putback on the second one.

The Raptors then had three straight dunks that forced Mike Malone to call for time. First, Barnes slammed one home after posting up Murray; then it was Anunoby’s turn with a pick six, and finally, a fast break dunk by Poeltl pushed the lad to 14-8.

When play resumed, the Raptors decided to get things going from deep. VanVleet scored back-to-back triples, and Anunoby added another, pushing the lead to 23-12. Siakam finally scored, and Poeltl added two free throws to give the Raptors their largest lead, 27-12.

But while every Raptor starter played well in the frame, the quarter really belonged to VanVleet. His only two-pointer came on a masterful drive, and he hit four of five threes, none more notable than his final make of the period, where he crossed Christian Braun out of his shoes, stepped back, and hit nothing but net. The Raptors won the quarter 49-30. Yes, 49! That’s a franchise record for points in a quarter. Not bad, eh?

The second quarter, I expected the Raptors to fall apart. Nick Nurse rolled out a Siakam+bench lineup featuring Achiuwa, Will Barton, Chris Boucher and Trent, and those groups just haven’t looked good. But the group was fine; they were only a -2 in four minutes before Nurse brought Anunoby and Poeltl back.

Murray finally got on the board early in the second, hitting a scooping layup after beating Barton into the lane. It was his first make in six attmepts.

Leading 58-38 after three Trent free throws, Barton had a fast break with a chance to add two more, but Murray raced downcourt and caught him from behind with a spectacular block. Fortunately, Trent was fouled on the ensuing scramble, and his two free throws gave the Raps their largest lead, 60-38.

The Nuggets then ran off a 8-2 run, but the Raptors responded. Anunoby hit a fadeaway in the lane, then VanVleet schooled the Nuggets D again with drive to the hoop. Barnes followed that up with a fastbreak layup to restore the 22-point lead, 68-46.

Poeltl picked up his third foul with just over three minutes togo in the half, prompting the Raptors to go small, with Trent Jr. in with the starters. But you know how doesn’t play small? O.G. Anunoby! He threw down a wicked one-handed putback dunk after a Trent miss that had the crowd screaming.

Still, the Nuggets outscored the Raptors 8-4 over that stretch, to close the gap to 16, 72-56, at the half.

The Raptors continue their homestand Thursday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.