LOS ANGELES – Had he not been otherwise occupied, it would have been a perfect night for Nick Nurse to take part in one of his favorite past-times at this point in the NBA season.
Alas, the Raptors coach had other duties – guiding Toronto to a 103-100 win over the Los Angeles Clippers – but he likely would have enjoyed just sitting back and watching the scores roll in, too.
Instead, he got to live one of the more dramatic finishes of the season for the Raptors, who have now won five straight road games.
Clutch free throws by Fred VanVleet and a final defensive stand by Precious Achiuwa sealed the win.
“I look at (the standings) a lot, it’s kind of fun,” Nurse said before the game. “Try to look through and see what’s happening. I’m not going crazy about it or losing any sleep about it but I think it’s interesting.”
It’s very interesting.
The three teams closest to Toronto – Chicago, Cleveland and Brooklyn – all lost Wednesday night, moving the Eastern Conference one step closer to setting up a frenetic finish to the playoff race in the final three weeks of the season.
The Bulls are 41-28, the Raptors and Cavaliers are in a dead tie at 39-30 and with a series of games left between them all, it could very well be an enthralling run to the fifth and sixth seed – which guarantees a playoff berth – and the No. 7 slot that sets up the most amenable run through the play-in series.
Brooklyn fell to 36-34, precariously holding on the No. 8 spot by one game.
With nine of their last 13 games at home, including eight of their last 10 after a back-to-back trip to Philadelphia and Chicago on the weekend, the Raptors are finished with the heavy lifting portion of their season.
However, that schedule quirk gave Nurse pause to consider whether Wednesday’s game here really was the last one of the trip.
“We know we’ve got to go out and play really hard every night to give ourselves a chance. The games are coming — I didn’t even know it was the last game of a road trip because I think we go home for one and then go out the door the next day for a few more. It’s not a true last game of a road trip. It doesn’t feel like it.”
The Clippers were exponentially more competitive than the Lakers were on the same court Monday night, matching the Raptors aggressiveness from the opening tap.
They may not have an overabundance of talent, especially with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Norm Powell out with injuries, but they work hard.
“They play really hard,” Nurse said of the Clippers. They’re very well coached. They’re playing very well. I know they compete. That’s good. I hope they do. I hope we do. That’s all I’m ever looking for, is we go out there and compete.”
The Raptors were unquestionably competitive finishing up a tough six-game road trip. They led basically the entire game and were able to stop any sustained Clippers run with timely baskets.
When Los Angeles closed to within two points about midway through the fourth quarter, the Raptors got a three-point play from Chris Bosh, a thunderous dunk from Scottie Barnes off a turnover, a Precious Achiuwa three-pointer and a Pascal Siakam layup to extend the lead to 10 in about a two-minute span.
Siakam finished with 31 points, his eighth straight game with at least 20 and Fred VanVleet scored 21 and iced the game with two free throws with nine seconds left.
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