The Raptors have played 2,215 games now, with Vinsanity and Kawhi Leonard, with a championship team and teams unspeakably overmatched, and yet this iteration has set itself apart from all others.
As unlikely as it might have seemed at times this season, this group scored more points in one quarter of an NBA game than any Raptors team before it, pouring in 49 in the first quarter of an important 125-110 victory over the Denver Nuggets at the Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday.
Eclipsing the former record of 48, set in New Jersey in the second season of the franchise’s existence, the Raptors rode the blistering start to a victory that snapped a three-game losing streak. It kept Toronto in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and was the fourth straight loss for the West-leading Nuggets.
“This time of the year, I think who we are as a group, we just need to keep being positive no matter what,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “A couple of tough losses is definitely a shot in the gut to your morale and your energy but I think, from practice to shootaround to locker rooms to plane rides or whatever, we just got to stay positive and keep pushing forward and I think that’s going to put ourselves in the best position.”
So is finishing games well. The Nuggets, once down 24 points, got within a basket of the lead in the fourth quarter but the Raptors pulled away again with some excellent execution down the stretch.
“We made some really good decisions at the end, some timely baskets, back-cut baskets, a couple finishes at the rim,” coach Nick Nurse said. “Made a couple threes at the end.
“The stretch where they closed it back down … I still thought we were running really good stuff and I thought we just went a little chilly on the offensive end for about a five-, six-minute stretch.”
VanVleet was wonderful, with 36 points — a franchise-best 10th game of 30-plus points in a season — and the way he calmed the game in its most tenuous moments was a testament to his leadership. As the Raptors were reeling near the end of the third quarter, he had a clean steal at midcourt and dished to Scottie Barnes, who finished a three-point play to quell a Denver run.
VanVleet sat out the first four minutes of the fourth quarter as the lead waved between three and five points and scored on his first touch upon re-entering the game. He added seven assists and three steals in one of his best games of the season.
“I know his numbers are awesome and he really was assertive and stuff but he really had us incredibly organized,” Nurse said. “He found a bunch of little wrinkles. We’d run one set and he’d run it maybe three times in a row and he’d find something different all three times when he saw the first one, how they were covering it. He had a great floor game from a leadership standpoint.”
The Raptors gave two-time MVP Nikola Jokic a steady diet of O.G. Anunoby, the same formula they used successfully in Denver just over a week ago. Anunoby again pressured Jokic when the seven-foot centre was trying to run the Nuggets offence. Jokic initiated far fewer sets Tuesday, an anticipated reaction.
“I think one of the things he likes to do is bring the ball up the floor and we did pressure that early (in the first meeting) and they kind of just got away from it,” Nurse said before the game. ”Will they try to force that issue a little more tonight? Maybe. We’ll see if that is a factor but, again, when they realize what you’re trying to take away, they quickly start moving to the other things to see how you’re going to play those.”
Jokic managed to find teammates on cuts through the lane and had a couple of plays where he made quick cuts of his own to get to the rim. He finished with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
“The beauty of Nikola is every night he’s going to read how he’s being guarded and he’s going to react accordingly,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He never goes into a game (thinking) ‘I’m doing this.’
“I learned in second grade, the defence tells you what to do. I think Nikola understands that to the fullest.”
While Anunoby was battling Jokic, the Raptors wing still managed to make four three-pointers and contribute 24 points in another in a series of tremendous games.
Kitchener’s Jamal Murray, who sat out the entire fourth quarter of a Denver loss Sunday and was listed as questionable with knee woes until a couple of hours before the game, had 14 points for the Nuggets in 40 minutes.
“There was no way in hell he wasn’t going to play tonight,” Malone said. “Even if he’s on one leg, he has 40 or 50 people in the building. This game means a lot to him, obviously, given his Canadian upbringing.”
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