TORONTO — In a key span of 18 seconds midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, Fred VanVleet calmly hit two catch-and-shoot three-pointers.
While the all-star guard has fallen out of favour with some Raptors fans amid his recent shooting struggles, particularly with the March 3 trade deadline looming, the veteran's big shots restored a nine-point lead and stuffed a Trail Blazers run, en route to Toronto's 117-105 win over Portland.
"Competing man, just trying to get a win and, again, laying it all out there on the line," VanVleet said of his six quick points. "That was a big swing there. So, just competing in the moment and trying to find a way to get it done, and we were able to do that tonight."
Pascal Siakam scored 27 points in the Raptors' first victory in four games. Scottie Barnes finished with 22 points and nine rebounds, while Gary Trent Jr. had 19 points, and VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby chipped in with 14 apiece for the Raptors (17-23), who've won just six of their last 20 games.
Damian Lillard scored 34 points for the Trail Blazers (19-20), who've lost three in a row.
The Raptors — who've been plagued by lapses of intensity, and were coming off a pair of frantic fourth-quarter comebacks that still resulted in losses — played one of their most consistent games in a while. They led by 19 points in the third quarter and cruised into the fourth up 89-74.
"Good team win," coach Nick Nurse said. "I think a lot of people contributed, which is a small step forward to get a bunch of contributions and get some really good, quality minutes (from bench players). Guys coming off the bench and everybody from the starting group, I thought, contributed pretty well."
The Blazers clawed back, and when Lillard tipped in a shot with 6:17 to play, the basket slashed the difference to just three points, eliciting groans from the Scotiabank Arena crowd. But VanVleet had them cheering again with back-to-back three-pointers that restored the lead to nine.
"Changes a lot of things, but it changes the scoreboard most importantly," Nurse said. "Those are big baskets and … this team has, in the past, we've got these little four-, five-point leads, it's getting down to crunch time and we make that big play."
Anunoby drilled a three from in front of the Raptors bench after Trent stole the ball off Lillard for a 10-point lead with 3:04 to play. Anfernee Simons' basket had the Blazers back within five with 1:40 to play, but Christian Koloko scored on a Siakam miss to all but seal the victory for Toronto.
The Raptors, who are last in the league in three-point percentage, shot a better 38.7 per cent from behind the arc, to the Blazers' 30 per cent. Portland also turned over the ball 24 times, costing them 29 points.
"For us to win this game, we had to take care of the ball and take good shots," coach and former Raptor Chauncey Billups said. "Twenty-nine points is just too much."
The Blazers took an early six-point lead, but the Raptors went on a 25-4 run that straddled the first and second quarters. Koloko's dunk at the end of the first put Toronto up 34-27 heading into the second.
Precious Achiuwa threw down an alley-oop dunk from Malachi Flynn early in the second for a 15-point advantage. They stretched it to 19 points on a step-back three-pointer from Trent at 7:14 in the quarter. But the Blazers replied with a 20-4 run of their own, slicing the difference to just three points a minute before halftime. Toronto took a 58-53 advantage into the break.
Siakam's three-pointer less than four minutes into the third quarter capped a 14-0 Raptors run that gave them a 19-point lead. Simons banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer and the Raptors took an 89-74 lead into the fourth quarter.
VANVLEET CONTRACT COMMOTION — VanVleet made a point of clearing the air post-game on a report that he had rejected a four-year contract extension worth $114 million this past off-season.
"I would never speak on my free agency or contract negotiations, especially conversations between me and management so it certainly didn’t come from me," said VanVleet, who has a player option in his contract this summer. "There was never a formal offer made. It was a mutual decision made by both sides that the smart thing to do would be to wait it out.
"It's a little misleading and I'm disappointed it has come out. I don't want it to be a distraction."
VERBAL TUSSLE — Video caught what looked like a verbal spat between Barnes and veteran Thaddeus Young during the halftime warm-up. Both players called it a minor disagreement.
"(Barnes) actually told me he loved me," Young said. "I told him I love him back. You know, no different than brothers going back and forth. Especially when we're both passionate about the game. I think that's one of the biggest things. We're both passionate about what we're doing, our craft and making sure that we get ourselves a win."
CAN-CON — The Raptors honoured Trail Blazers rookie and London, Ont., native Shaedon Sharpe with a video tribute. The 19-year-old, who was the No. 7 pick in the June NBA draft, finished with three points in 14 minutes of action.
MR. 1,200 — "The Raptor" mascot participated in his 1,200th Raptors game on Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2023.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press