TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors have learned to expect the unexpected, to win with the healthy bodies they have, and not to lament the players who are missing.
And so win No. 14 came courteous of Fred VanVleet and a big contribution from this season’s Bench Mob.
VanVleet scored 10 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter as the Raptors stretched their franchise-record, and league-leading winning streak to 14 games with a 119-118 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday.
Terence Davis had 20 points in his first home start, while fellow rookie Matt Thomas chipped in with 15, and moments after the win Nick Nurse praised the young players for stepping up when called upon.
"Our assistant coaches and staff do a great job keeping those guys ready with the mindset of `you never know’ and stay ready," Nurse said.
Pascal Siakam also had 20 points, while Serge Ibaka chipped in with 12 for the Raptors (39-14), who were missing six-time all-star guard Kyle Lowry.
Caris LeVert led the Nets (23-28) with 37 points.
A day after his energetic 17-point outburst in the Raptors’ 115-106 win in Indiana, Davis earned his second NBA start. Davis, who wasn’t named to the Rising Stars game of NBA all-star weekend, was announced in Saturday’s starting lineup as "From undrafted to our rising star." Then fittingly, he was the first Raptor on the board, after being fouled on a three-pointer for a four-point play.
The Raptors backups — Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Thomas and Oshae Brissett — went on a 14-2 second-quarter run that gave the Raptors their first double-digit lead of the night.
"Any athlete will know when you get in that zone and when you get in that rhythm, obviously, it’s a lot easier and the game comes a lot more naturally and you play with lots more confidence," Thomas said.
The Raptors stretched their lead to 18 points in the third, and went into the fourth up 100-88.
"That was a big lift," Nurse said on his bench’s big second quarter. "That group was awesome in the first half, right? They were incredible. They turned a lacklustre start to the game into an energetic game and they were great."
The Raptors couldn’t put away the pesky Nets in the fourth. A mini 5-0 Nets run pulled the visitors to within three points with three minutes to play. But VanVleet was fouled while driving to the hoop and his basket and free throw gave Toronto a three-point cushion and had the Scotiabank Arena crowd chanting: "Fred-dy! Fred-dy!"
But three consecutive baskets by LeVert tied the game 118-118 with just 35 seconds to play. With the capacity crowd of 19,800 on its feet, Siakam was fouled, making one of his two free throws with 23 seconds left. OG Anunoby smothered LeVert on Brooklyn’s final possession forcing an airball.
The Raptors can’t catch a break on the injury front. Lowry, who missed 11 games earlier in the season with a broken thumb, suffered whiplash when he hit the back of Ibaka on Friday in Indiana. Norman Powell missed his fourth game with a broken finger, while Marc Gasol has missed 18 games, in two stints, due to a hamstring injury.
"At this point, I think we’re experienced enough in that realm unfortunately," VanVleet said. "We’ve had a ton of guys out this year, so we don’t really think about it, it’s just more opportunity for a guy like Terence to get some starting minutes, obviously myself to be primary ballhandler most of the game, so it’s more opportunity and guys gotta step up and try to make the most out of the situation and find a way to get a win."
Mission accomplished so far.
The Raptors’ previous best win streak was 11 games, which they’d accomplished three times.
The Raptors’ win streak matched the Calgary Stampeders’ 14 consecutive wins in 2016 — which has been touted as the longest single-season win streak in Canadian professional sports history.
The Toronto Wolfpack, the city’s trans-Atlantic rugby league team, won 23 in a row in 2019.
Neither team led by more than five points in a first quarter that saw seven lead changes and the Nets led 36-33 to start the second.
Thomas led the way with 11 points, including an alley-oop layup from Ibaka, in the second quarter. A driving hook shot from Siakam had the Raptors up by 15 late in the half, and Toronto went into the break up 66-54.
Anunoby’s dunk early in the third stretched Toronto’s advantage to 18 points. Davis had three three-pointers and 11 points in the quarter, and the Raptors led 100-88 to start the fourth.