THE raptors have played 2,215 games now, with Vinsanity And Kawhi Leonardwith a champion team and unspeakably outclassed teams, and yet this iteration stood out above all the others.
As unlikely as it may seem at times this season, this group has scored more points in an NBA quarter game than any Raptors team before them, posting 49 in the first quarter of an important 125-110 win. against the Denver Nuggets at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday.
Eclipsing the old record of 48, set in New Jersey in the franchise’s second season, the Raptors got off to a flying start to a victory that ended a three-game losing streak. This kept Toronto in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and was the fourth straight loss for the Nuggets at the top of the West.
Toronto needed that bulge when the Nuggets, once down 24 points, found themselves within a field goal of the lead in the fourth quarter, but excellent execution in the streak gave the Raptors a comfortable win.
Fred Van Vleet was marvelous, with 36 points — a 10th-best game in a franchise over 30 points in a season — and the way he calmed the game down in its tightest moments is a testament to his leadership. With the Raptors reeling near the end of the third quarter, he made a clean steal into midfield and was fed to Scottie Barnes, who finished a three-point play to suppress a Denver run.
VanVleet missed the first four minutes of the fourth quarter as the lead fluctuated between three and five points and scored on his first touchdown entering the game. He added seven assists and three steals in one of his best games of the season.
The Raptors gave Nikola Jokic, double MVP a regular diet of OG Anunoby, the same formula they successfully used in Denver a little over a week ago. Anunoby again pressured Jokic when the seven-foot cross tried to lead the Nuggets attack. Jokic threw far fewer sets on Tuesday, an anticipated reaction.
“I think one of the things he likes to do is get the ball on the floor and we put pressure on that early (in the first meeting) and they sort of got away,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse before the game. “Are they going to try to force this issue a little more tonight? Maybe. We’ll see if that’s a factor but, again, when they realize what you’re trying to pull off, they quickly start moving on to other things to see how you’re going to play them.
Still, Jokic found teammates on cuts across the lane and had a few plays where he made his own quick cuts to get to the edge. He finished with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
“The beauty of Nikola is that 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 year, the defense tells you what to do. I think Nikola understands that perfectly.
As Anunoby struggled against Jokic, the Raptors wing still managed to make four three-pointers and contribute 24 points in another in a terrific game streak.
Kitchener’s Jamal Murray, who missed the entire fourth quarter of a loss to Denver on Sunday and was listed as questionable with knee issues until hours before the game, had 14 points for the Nuggets in 40 minutes.
“There was no way he wasn’t playing tonight,” Malone said. “Even though he is on one leg, he has 40 or 50 people in the building. This game means a lot to him, obviously, given his Canadian upbringing.