The Toronto Raptors survived a test from a desperate Denver Nuggets team fighting for its playoff life, escaping with a 114-110 victory Tuesday night.
Fred VanVleet, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring with 15 points each, and the Raptors bench outscored Denver's 53-29 in a bounce-back night for Toronto.
The Raps had to overcome a 29-point, 16-rebound performance from Denver's Serbian big man Nikola Jokic. Canadian point guard Jamal Murray had 15 points for the Nuggets
For the second game in a row, the Raptors were facing a team in urgent need of wins to get into the playoffs. Utah came to town battling to overtake the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Toronto came in off a loss to the L.A. Clippers on Sunday.
It was a battle of the NBA's top two offences since the all-star break. The Raptors top the league in offensive rating during that period (114.2 points per 100 possessions), while the Nuggets rank second in that stretch (113.5 points).
The Raptors, losers in two of their previous three games, got back in the gym for a much-needed practice on Monday, battling to hold their grip on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The focus of that practice was defensive execution.
Over all on the season, the Raptors are third in the NBA in defensive rating. Yet when looking at that same category since March 18 to 25 – a week in which the team lost three of five games – they ranked 27th.
The Nuggets were without leading scorer Gary Harris for a sixth straight game because of a right knee strain, but Kitchener, Ont., native and starting point guard Jamal Murray, has been taking the Nuggets on his shoulders. Murray had 15 points.
Lowry started the game with perfect shooting, hitting all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in the first quarter.
Other early-night highlights included Pascal Siakam showing his toughness and defensive chops. Minutes after falling to the floor in a gruesome collision under the basket with 6-11, 235-pound Mason Plumlee, Siakam chased and perplexed Murray so thoroughly that he forced the Denver point guard into a shot-clock violation.
Then Delon Wright nailed an improbable buzzer-beater from well beyond the half-court to put the Raptors up 25-23 as the first quarter ended, whooping up the ACC crowd. But perhaps more important, the Raps had held the Nuggets to 29-per-cent shooting from the floor.
However, the Nuggets found a way to shoot a remarkable 67 per cent in the second quarter, temporarily stealing the lead. Jokic exploded for 13 points in the quarter to make life tough on the Raptors.
Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka answered back with some tough buckets – and big blocks – to get Toronto back into it. The teams went into halftime tied, as dancers entertained the crowd for – fittingly – Serbian heritage night at the ACC.
Nokic's height continued to trouble Toronto, as did Paul Millsap, who went off for a 12-point flurry of floaters and jump shots. The Raps tried several combinations of centres to deal with Denver's length, and the Raps trailed just 85-82 going into the last quarter.
Toronto's bench took control of the game in the fourth, as if responding to criticism in Sunday's loss to the LA Clippers that they.
Back-to-back threes from Delon Wright and VanVleet finally gave the Raps back the lead. VanVleet took a charge that had Kyle Lowry standing in ovation from the bench.
Then there was Jakob Poeltl. A late-game put-back seemed to fuel the Austrian for what he'd do next. In the highlight reel play of the game, Poeltl skyrocketed over Milsap into a remarkable long-armed leap and put the ball in the net with a mesmerizing manoeuvre that was a hybrid between a dunk and a throw – Space Jam style. His 12-point, eight-rebound night came together after a rough start to the night in which he picked up four fouls and had to sit.
"It's mainly just all of us boosting each other," said Poeltl (who by the way, said it was a dunk). "It's like 'don't forget, we know we're better than that. We're better than we played in that game against the Clippers.' So it's really all about building confidence in each other."
Poeltl's bounce-back got his teammates' attention.
"It's what we need him to do. It's what we count on him for," said VanVleet. "He went out there and did his job. It's not going to be perfect every time. We've been pretty successful as a unit this year. When we don't play up to that level it feels bad, it looks bad. People kind of lose their minds a little bit. As a unit we stay together and people instill confidence in one another. Sometimes it's one guy's night and not another's. Jakob came through in the fourth."
The Raps withstood one last Denver push down the stretch.
It was the reserves playing the big minutes late with the game on the line.
"We're going to go with the guys who are going to help us win. DeMar understands that, Serge understands that, no disrespect, they'll be right back and get the opportunity, they're our guys," said Toronto Coach Dwane Casey. "Tonight, Jakob was playing well, Pascal was playing well, and Freddy and Delon had it going. There's no doghouse, nobody is in trouble. It's team basketball.
Toronto now sits just one victory away from tying their franchise record of 56 wins in a season – one they set in the 2015-16 season. The tests keep coming, with visits to Boston and Cleveland up next.