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VanVleet's 36 points leads Raptors past Nuggets 125-110; Toronto ends three-game skid

TORONTO — There was no way the Toronto Raptors were going to let the Denver Nuggets earn a comeback win against them for the second time in eight days.
Toronto Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby (3) dunks on Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO — There was no way the Toronto Raptors were going to let the Denver Nuggets earn a comeback win against them for the second time in eight days.

Fred VanVleet scored 36 points including a key three-pointer in the fourth quarter as Toronto withstood a late Denver charge for a 125-110 victory on Tuesday. 

VanVleet said that the win came down to the Raptors keeping a positive mindset following a controversial ending to a 118-113 loss in Denver on March 6.

"We've seen a lot of leads come and go," said VanVleet, who added seven assists and three steals. "So just keep moving forward. 

"I think this time of the year where we are as a team, as a group, I think we just need to keep being positive no matter what."

O.G. Anunoby's smothering defence and 24 points helped the Raptors (33-36) snap a three-game losing skid.

Toronto's losing streak began with the loss to the Nuggets last week, as Canadian guard Jamal Murray converted a free throw in the final stretch of that comeback victory after Scottie Barnes was ejected by referee Scott Foster on a controversial technical foul.

"A couple of tough losses definitely. A shot in the gut to your morale and your energy," said VanVleet, who was fined US$30,000 by the NBA for criticizing officials following a 108-100 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last Wednesday.

"I think from practice to shoot around to locker room, plane rides, whatever, we've just got to stay positive and keep pushing forward."

MVP candidate Nikola Jokic led the Western Conference-leading Nuggets (46-23) with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Michael Porter Jr. added 23 points and six rebounds as Denver lost its fourth straight.

"Oh, it's definitely tough. Yeah, it's tough," said Anunoby with a rueful laugh when asked about defending Jokic all night. "He's very versatile. He passes, he handles, he does everything. 

"You have to have your head on a swivel at all times, and communicate and just be on your toes, be ready."

Toronto's defence effectively pestered Jokic and his teammates throughout the first quarter, building a 49-30 lead after 12 minutes. That's the most the Raptors have ever scored in a single quarter, topping the previous high of 48 set on Jan. 11, 1997 at New Jersey.

Toronto led by as much as 22 points in the second quarter and held a 72-56 advantage at the end of the half.

A 12-3 Nuggets run in the third quarter helped Denver reel in Toronto, with Jeff Green's hook shot from under the rim cutting the Raptors lead to 98-92 after three quarters.

"I thought we were very disruptive most of the game," said Toronto head coach Nick Nurse. "When you're disruptive, you’re going to have a few mistakes here and there, but I thought we bothered them enough where they didn’t play great rhythm on offence."

Aaron Gordon drained one of two free throws with 10:12 to play to pull Denver to within three. After the teams exchanged field goals VanVleet came back on the court and drained a three-pointer to make it 105-99 with 8:32 left to play.

"That's a hard team to put away," said VanVleet. "They may runs, but we made enough plays to get out of here with a win."

Raptors all-star forward Pascal Siakam drove to the net for a layup to add two more points to that lead more than minute later. Anunoby dunked on the next possession, and when Green made a  Toronto guard Gary Trent Jr. stole the ball for an easy two points and a 12-point lead.

The two teams traded baskets the rest of the way, with a VanVleet three helping Toronto pull away when Jokic could only reply with a 12-foot jumper. Barnes and Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl had back-to-back dunks as the Raptors piled on for a 125-108 advantage before Denver's Christian Braun scored the final points of the game.

CANADIAN KIDS — The Raptors are hosting back-to-back games against opponents featuring top-flight Canadians — Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nurse, who is also head coach of Canada's national men's basketball team, said he hopes both of them can represent their country at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

MURRAY IN — Murray, from nearby Kitchener, Ont., had been doubtful heading into the game after he had left Friday's 128-120 loss in Brooklyn early with a sore knee but he was in the lineup at Scotiabank Arena for the first time since Dec. 3, 2018.

"There's no way in hell he wasn't playing tonight," said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone. "Even if he's on one leg, he's got probably 40 to 50 people in the building tonight."

UP NEXT — Toronto hosts the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.

The Nuggets travel to Detroit to face the Pistons on Thursday. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2023.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press