TORONTO — In basketball, it’s never a must win unless it’s the playoffs and a team is facing elimination.
But this was one of those must-have wins, the kind the Raptors simply needed when looking at the fast-charging Celtics in the East and the upcoming schedule, which sees Toronto play Boston twice in a five-night span.
And sandwiched in between is a date back in Cleveland with LeBron James and the Cavs.
A loss Wednesday to visiting Denver could have been potentially devastating for a Toronto team that had suffered three defeats in its past five tips.
When Toronto needed to step up, it did. The Raptors held off a very well-coached and hard-working Nuggets team, 114-110.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined for 16 of Toronto’s 16 assists.
Toronto’s bench, and in particular Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, was very aggressive, getting into the paint and finishing at the rim with forceful drives.
Jacob Poeltl had one of his finest moments, emerging as the best player on the floor when the Raptors took over in the fourth.
“It’s was a playoff atmosphere, a playoff game for both of us,’’ said head coach Dwane Casey.
Casey liked how his bench got into defensively, how the reserves rebounded from a tough outing Sunday when the Clippers stormed back.
It was one of those moments of atonement for the second unit, which pretty much played likes seasoned vets.
Delon Wright added to the bench revival.
Poeltl played with four fouls, but he played well.
“We may have to play him with four fouls,’’ quipped Casey. “The intensity, he was locked in, moving his feet, his hands, I was really proud for him, a bounce back (from Sunday’s loss).”
Defensively, the Raptors were much more active as the game began to turn into Toronto’s favour.
The game was fast paced, capped off by a near four-point play by VanVleet with 5:07 to play.
Despite his missed free throw, Toronto led 103-96.
Lowry was re-inserted for C.J. Miles.
Poeltl’s defence and ability to score second-chance points, Siakam’s activity, they all contributed to the nine-point lead the Raptors would forge.
Kitchener native Jamal Murray then drilled a three-ball with the shot clock about to expire.
About the only negative news to emerge was the sight of Lowry leaving the court for the locker room.
As well as Toronto was playing, credit Denver in how it battled and competed, responding to runs and taking the lead late when Devin Harris buried his mid-range jumper with 10 seconds remaining in the third.
A similar script would pay out in the fourth, only this time the Raptors maintained their solid play for an extended stretch.
And yet again, Denver refused to go silently into the night, making the evening interesting after the Nuggets made shots from distance and then watched as
Valanciunas made one of two free throws.
Toronto would hang on.
Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap each reached the 20-point scoring plateau, the two combining to go 17 of 28 from the field in the third.
For the game, Jokic poured in a game-high 29 points, hauled down 16 rebounds and recorded eight assists.
Murray ended with 15 points.
After three quarters, Denver led 85-82.
Lowry was back on the bench when the fourth quarter began.
The first quarter will be remembered more for how it ended than how it started, 12 minutes of decent basketball featuring a lot of missed threes missed by the Nuggets and more points scored by the Raptors from distance than from the field.
The play, though, that stood out was produced by Wright.
Denver had just scored a basket and retreated inside its half of centre court, allowing Wright to heave a shot that banked in just as the buzzer sounded.
It was Toronto’s fifth made three of the quarter, but one that should have been prevented had Denver provided some kind of shot contest or at least forced Wright to put the ball on the floor.
In normal circumstances, shots from 50 feet don’t often fall, but this heave did and the Wright basket got the crowd excited.
Earlier in the period, Siakam had his leg rolled up on in an awkward sequence.
He did get back to his feet following a few anxious minutes and Siakam remained in the game.
BENCH CLOSES UP AGAIN
True to his word, true to how he’s approached every end-of-game scenario all season long, head coach Dwane Casey went with the group that played well when the fourth quarter began and when it ended.
And that meant DeMar DeRozan stayed on the bench, Serge Ibaka didn’t see the floor and was why Jonas Valanciunas saw all of five seconds, missing one of two free throws, in the game’s final 12 minutes.
With the bench playing so well, there was no need to bring back the starters.
Casey has been doing it all year.
“We’ll go with the guys who are going to help us win,’’ said Casey. “DeMar understands that, Serge understands that. No disrespect because they’ll be right back and have that opportunity. They’re our guys … There’s no dog house, nobody in trouble or anything. It’s team basketball.”