The centre finished with 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting to go along with a career-high 18 rebounds. Poeltl was especially instrumental in the fourth quarter, where he picked up 10 points, six boards — three of those on the offensive glass — as well as a nasty block at the rim on Herbert Jones.
“He was humongous at getting us extra possessions,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He was protecting the rim down there. He won a jump ball for us … he did so many good things.”
Pelicans head coach Willie Green had similar praise, calling Poeltl’s rebounding the “difference in the last stretch of the game.”
The victory pushes the Raptors to their sixth win in the past seven games, marking the best stretch they’ve played this season. For the third time, they’ve also won three straight — all have been with Poeltl as a starter — marking a monumental shift for Toronto since acquiring him at the Feb. 9 trade deadline, as he continues to look like the piece the Raptors were missing all along.
It helps kick off what Nurse calls a “seven-week sprint” to end off the season following the NBA’s All-Star break. With the Raptors coming off a week-long rest, all focus is now on climbing up the Eastern Conference standings, where they sit in ninth — good enough for a play-in spot.
“That is what you play basketball for at the end of the day, because you want to win,” said Poeltl post-game. “You don’t just want to win a (single) basketball game. You want to win to get to the playoffs, to get the Finals, to win championships and stuff like that. So, yeah, that is what makes it fun at the end of the day.”
Once again, it was his ability to make plays from the elbow or at the top of the paint that helped the Raptors make smart decisions in the half-court. In addition, his intensity in the fourth quarter proved pivotal, as Nurse applauded Poeltl’s ability to punish the Pelicans for trying to blitz Siakam with Larry Nance Jr.‘s speed and athleticism.
Toronto was able to first pull away in the third quarter, ending the frame up 15 points. It was behind a sizzling frame from Pascal Siakam, who put up 18 of his 26 points in that quarter. To cap it off, Chris Boucher also threw down an exclamation point with arguably one of the best dunks of the year.
“That was pretty cool,” said Nurse. “That’s Chris, right? He’s going to make some spectacular plays. He’s going to do ‘em at both ends. He makes something happen. It isn’t always good but tonight there was a sequence there where they were great, right? So he makes things happen and plays with tremendous energy. And that is what we need from him off the bench.”
The Pelicans didn’t quit though, even without their all-star in Zion Williamson. Brandon Ingram scored 14 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, ultimately cutting the Raptors lead to 112-110 with 33 seconds to go.
With the Raptors on the verge of giving up another big lead, it was Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. who stepped up, as the all-star found the sharp shooter for a dagger-three.
It was a nice and critical win for the Raptors, who were graced with some big home court energy in Scotiabank Arena behind Caribbean Heritage night.
“I mess with the vibe, get a little bubble in before the game,” said Scottie Barnes, who finished with 18 points and three assists while subbing in for an absent Fred VanVleet as the starting point guard.
“It was good. I like hearing that. It was a good atmosphere.”
Counting tonight, the Raptors follow the All-Star break with 23 games, and it’s not an easy remaining schedule. Seven of those first nine games are on the road, while 12 games are against teams with a .500 or better record — the Pelicans included.
The goal is to be among the top six teams in the East. That way, the Raptors won’t be subject to a do-or-die play-in game — the result of landing between the seventh to 10th seeds in a respective conference. Instead, by landing among the top six, they’ll be able to further their 2022-23 campaign with a seven-game series.
“We need these wins in order to try and make this deep playoff push,” said Barnes. “So every game is very important to us. So we just got to keep trying to win and play hard every time you step on the floor.”
Nurse was impressed with the Raptors’ offensive performance, but also the team’s defence, which he says is trying to catch up to the level they demonstrated at the end of last season. He particularly applauded their ability to protect the paint, however he wants to see more focus on defensive transition, especially after the Pelicans used it to knock down threes.
In general, Nurse is impressed with the team’s overall improvement. He notes that the team’s concentration is getting better, with the Raptors not making the same mistakes that plagued them three months ago. He credits the addition of Poeltl, but also more players getting healthy and re-entering the rotation.
“We put the trade deadline behind us. We put All-Star behind us,” said Nurse. “We’ve done a heck of a lot of work.”