Friday, February 23, 2024

Raptors show fight but blow huge lead against Thunder in latest loss

Toronto had chances, but fell in double overtime

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On the way to what would have been one of the most inspiring wins of a poor season, the Toronto Raptors found out why the Oklahoma City Thunder is a title contender.

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Up by as many as 23 points on the road against the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander-led powerhouse, the Raptors instead gave up one open three-pointer after another and saw the lead completely evaporate. The visitors still had plenty of chances, though, with the game going to double overtime, but couldn’t pull up the upset. Oklahoma City escaped with a 135-127 win to keep up with Minnesota atop the Western Conference. Toronto lost for the 11th time in 13 games.

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Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 23 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds, four other Thunder players scored at least 20, and the team hoisted up nearly twice as many three-pointers as the Raptors, which negated a big Toronto free throw advantage.

RJ Barrett led Toronto with 23, but rimmed out a three-pointer with 0.4 seconds left in regulation. Scottie Barnes and Dennis Schroder added 19 each.

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The final 1:09 of regulation was wild. Immanuel Quickley scored a layup to put the Raptors up by two points, but after three straight misses, two by the Thunder, Barrett grabbed a rebound but lost the ball out of bounds, giving the Thunder another chance. Aaron Wiggins capitalized, tying the game with 4.7 seconds left on a layup. Barrett then missed his shot and the game went to overtime.

Gilgeous-Alexander had one of his quieter scoring games, but he’s an MVP front-runner for a reason and did plenty of other things well until stepping up late. Down three with the Raptors seizing some momentum in overtime, the Hamilton native calmly sank a three-pointer with 56.1 seconds left, then stole a pass. He was not even close to finished, though. Gilgeous-Alexander missed a shot on the ensuing chance, but then blocked Gary Trent Jr. at the buzzer to send the game to a second overtime. Gilgeous-Alexander scored or assisted on all of the Thunder’s points in the first overtime. He set up three more three-pointers to finish off the Raptors, all while playing with five fouls.

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With Barrett ready to play, Toronto went with its 14th different starting lineup this season. Bruce Brown moved to the bench.

The Raptors got out to a surprising 33-23 lead after the first quarter, thanks to a balanced attack and great work on the boards.

The Thunder closed within four in the second, but then the Raptors started heating up from beyond the arc and went into the break leading by 16 against the stunned hosts.

It got even stranger. Toronto extended the lead to 23 points when Barnes hit a three-pointer near the midway mark of the third quarter, but the Thunder finally woke up after that point and got back into the game. Outside shooting was the main reason why, as Oklahoma City made five of the next six three-pointers in the game to pull within six points entering the fourth.

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Rookie centre Chet Holmgren was a problem for the Raptors, especially in the fourth, when he showed off his offensive game with a three-pointer and a dunk early on.

The Thunder had not led since it was 8-6, but Montreal’s Lu Dort changed that by putting all kinds of pressure on the Raptors. The defensive stopper hit a three-pointer, found Josh Giddey for a layup to tie the game, forcing the Raptors to call a timeout and then hit a go-ahead layup after grabbing a rebound following a Toronto miss. The Thunder’s Canadian combination has been great for the team all year and this time Dort stepped up while Gilgeous-Alexander was on the bench resting. Not exactly good news for a Toronto team that had done so well to build up a big lead earlier.

Sure enough, once Gilgeous-Alexander checked back in he went into facilitator mode, setting up a number of Thunder buckets as he approached a triple-double.

Toronto was coming off one of its most dispiriting losses of the season, a blowout at the hands of the Houston Rockets but rallied well. Still, the team will now have to play in New Orleans without much rest on Monday night.

@WolstatSun

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