VanVleet goes beast mode to lift Raptors over West-leading Nuggets

Fred VanVleet put up a vintage performance against one of the NBA's top squads as the Raptors cooked the Nuggets by 15 on Tuesday night.

The Toronto Raptors put fans in Scotiabank Arena through a whirlwind of emotions against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday. They made history, avoided a massive collapse, all while containing the league’s reigning two-time MVP in Nikola Jokic.

It all resulted in a much needed win as the Raptors snapped their three-game losing streak with a 125-110 victory.

Toronto initially opened the night by dropping a franchise-high 49 points in the first quarter. It was led by Fred VanVleet, who scored 14 in the frame, ultimately finishing with a game-high 36 points on 8-of-12 three-point shooting — including some clutch late plays.

"This year, in particular, we've seen a lot of leads come and go," said VanVleet post-game. "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. And a couple of tough losses definitely were a shot in the gut, to your morale and your energy.

"But you know, I think from practice, to shoot-around, to locker room, to plane rides, whatever, we just got to stay positive, and keep pushing forward. I think that that's going to help us put ourselves in the best position."

The first quarter saw the Raptors finish with a 19-point lead — one they would build on until about halfway through the third quarter, as they pushed it to 24 points.

However, the Nuggets would remind everyone why they hold the best record in the Western Conference, showing a resilient effort as they also came into the night having lost three-straight.

With 7:33 left in the third, Denver would storm back with a 28-10 run to finish the frame. It was behind a trio of Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, who combined for 32 points in the third quarter on 11-17 shooting.

The Raptors went "a bit chilly," says head coach Nick Nurse, as the Nuggets were able to cut the lead to only six by the end of the third, and to just three points by the 8:39 mark of the fourth.

"They got a little more active, a little more pressure defensively," said VanVleet. "We were a little sloppy with some turnovers and we just missed some shots, but I thought we weathered the storm and came back with a great fourth quarter. Enough to come out of here with a win."

Like many times before, it was VanVleet who kept the Raptors afloat.

Just before the end of the third quarter, amid a three-minute scoring drought for the Raptors, VanVleet came up with a crucial steal, and then found Scottie Barnes for an and-1 dunk.

After resting to open the fourth, Nurse brought his point guard back in at the 8:39 mark. VanVleet opened with a big three, which sparked a 9-0 run — capped off by a Trent Jr. dunk in transition following a steal.

Shortly after, the Raptors would push it back up to double-digits, and wouldn’t look back.

"Freddy called an incredible game tonight. I know his numbers are awesome, and he really was assertive and stuff. But he really was incredibly organized and found a bunch of little wrinkles," said Nurse post-game on VanVleet's ability to adjust to the Nuggets' defensive schemes.

It's a necessary win for the Raptors, and also comes after a controversial loss against the Nuggets about a week earlier.

"We definitely wanted to win this game," said O.G. Anunoby. "Just give us some momentum going into the next couple games, multiple games at home. So it was definitely important for us to win this and just try to carry it over."

Anunoby finished with 24 points on 10-14 shooting, to go along with one of the highlights of the night with a nasty put-back slam over Aaron Gordon.

"It was a nice dunk. I smiled, I think. I’m pretty sure. I don’t remember but I think I smiled. I hope I smiled."

Equally important was Anunboy’s presence on the defensive end. Nurse and VanVleet both praised his ability against Jokic, even though the latter said he "hates looking at the box score" after going against the Serbian center, who still finished with 28 points on 10-13 shooting (8-8 from the free-throw line) and seven assists.

The Raptors' 6-foot-7 wing was instrumental, especially in the first half as he helped keep the 6-foot-11 Jokic out of the paint, as the Raptors found their rhythm on both ends.

"He's a great player, though. So he'll adjust in other ways," said Anunoby.

Against Jokic, who’s in the running for his third straight MVP, it comes as a crucial win for the Raptors, especially considering their season has been plagued by some tough losses, many of them coming after holding large leads.

With the win, the Raptors keep hold of ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a 33-36 record.

Raptors guard Fred VanVleet put up a vintage performance against one of the NBA's best squads on Tuesday. (AP photos)
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet put up a vintage performance against one of the NBA's best squads on Tuesday. (AP photos)

The goal, one can assume, is to be among the top six teams in the East. That way, they won’t be subject to a do-or-die play-in game — the result of landing between the seventh to 10th seeds in a respective conference. Instead, by landing among the top six, they’ll be able to further their 2022-23 campaign with a seven-game series.

To get there, they’ll need to close the gap between them and the sixth seed, which the Raptors sit 6.5 games out of — as they look up to the New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks.

Looking forward, they’ll have their eyes set on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, with six of their next seven games at Scotiabank Arena.