VanVleet’s 36 points leads Raptors past Nuggets to end three-game skid

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TORONTO — Fred VanVleet’s 36-point performance powered the Toronto Raptors past the Denver Nuggets 125-110 on Tuesday.

VanVleet also had seven assists and three steals as Toronto (33-36) snapped a three-game losing skid.

O.G. Anunoby’s smothering defence and 24 points helped the Raptors gain a measure of revenge following a controversial ending to a 118-113 loss in Denver on March 6.

Michael Porter Jr. led the Western Conference-leading Nuggets (46-23) with 23 points and six rebounds.

MVP candidate Nikola Jokic had 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as Denver lost its fourth straight.

The Raptors’ losing streak began with a 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.

Denver beat Toronto in that game despite Anunoby limiting Jokic to a relatively quiet 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.

“We did take away a couple of things that were pretty major,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before Tuesday’s game. “One of the things (Jokic) likes to do is bring the ball up the floor and we did pressure that early.”

Anunoby picked up where he left off nearly five minutes into Thursday’s game, intercepting a bad pass to Jokic at the top of the arc and rushing down the floor for a completely uncontested dunk and a 12-8 Toronto lead.

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.

VanVleet led the Raptors’ offence in the first half, scoring 18 by intermission. Toronto led by as much as 22 points in the second quarter and held a 72-56 advantage at the end of the half.

VanVleet brought the 19,800 in attendance to their feet with back-to-back three-pointers with 8:41 left in the third quarter for an 86-64 lead. A 12-3 Nuggets run 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.

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.

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 bad pass leading Denver back up the floor, Toronto guard Gary Trent Jr. stole the ball for an easy two points and a 12-point lead.

The two teams had seven points apiece over the next three minutes of play, with a VanVleet three helping Toronto slightly pull away when Jokic could only reply with a 12-foot jumper. Barnes and Toronto centre Jakob Poeltl had back-to-back dunks as the Raptors piled on for a 125-108 advantage.

Denver’s Christian Braun added one more field goal for the final score 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. Denver head coach Michael Malone said before the game that Murray would be 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 Malone. “Even if he’s on one leg, he’s got probably 40-50 people in the building tonight.”

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