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Growing pains as young Toronto Raptors fend off Houston Rockets 107-104

Toronto Raptors guard Immanuel Quickley (5) drives around Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Friday, February 9, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn Toronto Raptors guard Immanuel Quickley (5) drives around Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Friday, February 9, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
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There's going to be games when the Toronto Raptors have to learn on the job. Veteran centre Jakob Poeltl is eager to be part of those lessons.

Immanuel Quickley led with 25 points as the Raptors held off the Houston Rockets 107-104 on Friday as Toronto welcomed back former star Fred VanVleet. The Raptors led by as much as 23 points but the game was decided by a single shot, which Poeltl said was discussed in the locker room post-game.

“It's a good win for us and at the same time it's a learning experience being in a game like that when it comes down to the wire,” said the 28-year-old Poeltl who, after eight seasons in the NBA, is one of Toronto's more experienced players. “Cleaning up those mistakes on defence, cleaning it up, even rebounds at the end of the game.

“It kept them in the game a little bit. Getting a little bit better organized. Stuff like that.”

RJ Barrett of Mississauga, Ont., had 21 points and a season-high seven assists as Toronto (19-33) won back-to-back games.

Scottie Barnes and Poeltl each had a double-double. Barnes had 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, while Poeltl had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

“We've got to keep our aggressiveness a little bit,” said Poeltl. “It's one thing not to play wild and try and manage your lead.

“We want to play smart, but we almost we made it a little bit too easy on them getting stops there at the end of the game.”

Jabari Smith Jr. had a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds as Houston (23-28) dropped its third straight. Dillon Brooks, also from Mississauga, had 20 points with 11 coming in the fourth quarter.

“We've got to bring that intensity from the beginning,” said Brooks. “Our starters, including myself, were a little slow to begin with. We can't dig ourselves those types of holes.”

VanVleet, who started his career with the Raptors and won the NBA championship with the team in 2019, returned to Toronto for the first time since signing with Houston in the off-season. He agreed to a lucrative three-year US$128 million deal with the Rockets in July but wasn't able to play on Friday because of a left adductor strain.

“I don't really know what to expect, but I was obviously excited to make the trip,” said VanVleet at Houston's morning shootaround. “It's good to come visit some people and spend some time in some of my favourite places.

“It's definitely one of my favourite places in the world.”

A tribute video was played for VanVleet during the first quarter with the sold-out crowd of 19,800 giving him a standing ovation as he walked out into the middle of the court to wave his thanks. Scotiabank Arena also had VanVleet's picture with the message “Welcome back champ” on its outdoor video board.

A 13-3 Toronto rally closed out the first half as the Raptors went into the intermission with a 61-49 lead. That streak continued into the third, with Quickley nailing a 25-foot three-pointer early in the quarter.

The 24-year-old Quickley faked out Amen Thompson on the shot, with the sprinting Rockets guard flying past him before he calmly drilled the three. Quickley danced back down the court as Toronto opened up a 23-point advantage thanks to his dagger.

Backup Raptors centre Jontay Porter had five points to close out the third as Toronto held an 88-71 lead heading into the final frame.

Brooks helped the Rockets reel in his hometown team in the fourth, scoring 11 points in the quarter to cut Toronto's lead to six.

Quickley made one of two free throws with 36.1 seconds left to play before Holiday scored a quick layup and stole the in-bounds pass for another Houston possession.

Jeff Green missed his three-pointer when play resumed but the Rockets again gained the ball, with Brooks drilling a 27-foot three-pointer to pull the game to within a point.

“We were talking about (fouling him),” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. “He was just way too wide open. We were not close enough to foul that.”

Barrett was fouled on the in-bounds pass and made both of his free throws to restore a 107-104 Raptors lead with 18.2 seconds left.

Aaron Holiday missed a three-point attempt to tie the game on the next Houston possession but then called a timeout when Thompson grabbed the rebound with two seconds left. With the crowd chanting “DE-FENCE!” Jeff Green clanked his three-point shot off the rim to seal Toronto's victory.

NEW ARRIVALS - Guard Ochai Agbaji and Canadian centre Kelly Olynyk arrived in Toronto a day after the Utah Jazz traded them to the Raptors. Although both of them were available to play, Rajakovic rested them after they spent the day travelling.

UP NEXT - Toronto hosts the Cleveland Cavaliers (34-16) on Saturday night.

Houston continues its road trip with a stop in Atlanta against the Hawks on Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2024.

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