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DeRozan’s hot streak continues as Raptors fend off Nuggets

DeMar DeRozan shoots for a basket against Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler on Monday.

Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

As they are for any other 19-year-old man-child stepping out into the real world for the first time, victories are being measured in baby steps for Jamal Murray.

Since being selected in the first round of the NBA draft, seventh overall, by the Denver Nuggets last June, Murray has relocated from his home in Kitchener, Ont., and is growing accustomed to his newly adopted city.

He is living alone – just the way he likes it, he says. And he is even trying his hand at cooking.

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"Made some chicken the other day – baked it," Murray said proudly. "It was preseason, so I didn't have a lot of work."

These days, Murray has a lot more on his plate besides baking chicken.

The leading scorer during his one-and-done year for the University of Kentucky, where he averaged 20 points during the 2015-16 NCAA season, Murray has yet to pot a basket in his first two games at the NBA level.

He arrived in Toronto for Monday night's game against the Raptors at Air Canada Centre sporting a big doughnut in his first two games for the Nuggets – a combined 0-for-4 from the floor in 25 minutes of playing time off the bench.

The 6-foot-4 guard had made one free throw.

For such a prolific scorer during his collegiate and high school days, it has been somewhat of a sobering drought for Murray.

But Murray was excited about the prospect of returning to the court where he grew up watching the Raptors, and dreaming his NBA dreams, and of possibly scoring his first NBA basket before the estimated 100 family and friends for whom he had bought tickets.

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"Looking forward to it – looking forward to making a shot," Murray said, somewhat wryly, prior to the start of the game.

But it was another frustrating night for both Murray and the Nuggets as the Raptors withstood a furious fourth-quarter Denver comeback to hold on for a 105-102 nail-biting victory.

Murray was held in check once again – going 0-4 with one made free throw.

It was a game that the Raptors led by as many as 19 points in the second quarter, but the Nuggets continued to battle and a Wilson Chandler three-pointer provided Denver with its first lead of the game at 91-90 with just under nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.

But the Raptors, largely on the backs of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, fought back.

It was a driving DeRozan layup that knotted the score at 101-101 before consecutive buckets by Lowry, the second a layup with 45.3 seconds left, that moved Toronto in front by three. They would hang on after that.

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With his 33 points on the night, DeRozan became the first Raptor in franchise history to start a season with three consecutive 30-plus point games.

"The offensive force he's playing with right now is unreal," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game. "Kyle stepped up tonight and gave him a little boost. But DeMar's playing at a very high level offensively. And again we've got to maintain that and not wear that out."

Murray did not sub into the game until the start of the second quarter, and missed his first two shots. He was back on the bench after less than six minutes of playing time as the Raptors would pad their lead to 52-33 with about five minutes left until the break.

Murray was one of 11 Canadians to make opening-day rosters in the NBA this season, a group that includes Cory Joseph, the Raptors backup point guard who hails from nearby Pickering, Ont.

Joseph noted that Canadians making the grade in the NBA is no longer considered the big leap it once was. But he said it is still nice to run into the friendly face of a fellow Canuck every now and then.

"It's like a family when you're coming from Canada," Joseph said. "You're playing in the same league, going through the same daily routines. You feel proud whenever you see somebody else [from Canada] doing well. You just don't want them to do well against you."

Heading in, Casey expressed concern that the overly large starting front court for Denver – featuring a seven-footer in Jusuf Nurkic and a couple of 6-foot-10 specimens in Danilo Gallinari and Nikola Jokic – might overwhelm the Raptors under the rim.

That was not the case, at least early on where the quicker Raptors were able to expose Denver in the interior and jumped to a 33-24 lead in the first quarter. The Raptors hit on 53.6 per cent (15 of 28) of their shots, with DeRozan scoring 14 in the opening frame.

So calm and collected were the Raptors with their 62-49 lead at the half that center Jonas Valanciunas obligingly stopped to sign an autograph courtside on the way out for the third quarter.

But the Nuggets were not done and started to use their size advantage to good effect in the third quarter, outscoring Toronto 35-26 and outrebounding them 13-6 to trim the Raptors' lead to 88-85 heading into the fourth quarter.

"We lost our defensive mojo in the third quarter," Casey said.

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