Let’s make an obvious statement: The Toronto Raptors just aren’t in the same league as the Denver Nuggets. Even the homerest of all homers will concede this nugget of wisdom (pardon the pun). While it took some time for that sobering reality to manifest itself, the prodigious talents of one Carmelo Anthony and his talented supporting cast pounded and pounded the Raptors inside until they were collectively gasping for that precious Denver air. Let’s hope that it was more the atmosphere than it was the play. Even the Lakers took a beating in these unfriendly confines on Friday night, so maybe there is something to it.
To put it in blunt terms, we had a great first half but deep down you knew that the shots (contested or not) that were going in early weren’t going to fall in the second due to many reasons – fatigue, conditioning, the law of averages, Denver picking up pace etc. It’s still disappointing to see this team hit the wall as early as the third quarter and run out of gas to such an extent that they’re clutching shorts and holding sides during transitions. Sooner or later this defense needs to find a consistent gear and stay in it for 80% of the game, you simply can’t give up three 30+ point quarters and expect to be in a game. Denver’s good, really good, but giving up 130 points, 68 PINP and 62% shooting has a lot to do with our own defensive failings too.
The Nuggets look very polished, first and foremost you have to give them credit for their play. They run their offense through Carmelo Anthony, and why not? He was already a force to be reckoned with before this year, and now you can see the maturity in his game. He posted up frequently last night, and if he didn’t score, he made the right pass for easy buckets. Just too strong and mobile for anyone on this Raptor team. Antoine Wright couldn’t handle him from the start as he singlehandedly kept the Nuggets within reach as the Raptors got off to their roaring start. Then help came as this was identified, and this opened up many, many opportunities to dump off to a cutting Nene or Martin. The Nuggets’ interior passing was superb, they carved open and punished any form of help the Raptors tried to provide on Anthony.
The Raptors got off to a great start, and then provided you with this fleeting confidence that maybe, just maybe, they could pull this out. Maybe Antoine Wright at the SF is the best defensive answer to our woes. The Raptors defense looked very good early on and that’s because they had the energy needed to play defense. They played with energy and verve, active hands leading to turnovers, deflections, short-clock situations, you know, the things that constitute good defense. Jose Calderon looked good on both sides of the ball, sticking jumpers with little space over Billups who was no doubt taken back by Jose’s aggressiveness. DeMar DeRozan got a chance to put his emerging offensive game on display and he made the most of it. The first quarter was easily his best offensive quarter of this season, he had 8 points in 8 minutes. Chris Bosh was not very involved during this stretch or for the rest of the game and that’s mostly thanks to Nene pushing him out of his new found comfort zone and into the mid-post area. He was forced to work outside-in and couldn’t get on the offensive glass like he has all season, a frustrating evening for Bosh who was out-muscled by the Denver big man. After the first we had a one point lead and that was good, actually, not getting blown out in Denver should be considered good.
I’m not pointing fingers at Jay Triano for pulling 4 of the 5 starters off the floor late in the first quarter, but that’s how the Nuggets got back into the game and erased an early 9 point deficit. I’m sure he had a couple of things on his mind. One being the altitude (insert joke) and the second about this being the first game of a back-to-back. That’s fair, but his behaviour wasn’t consistent throughout the remainder of the game. There were a few instances where players looked completely gassed, especially that pivotal third quarter where it was almost comical how easily Denver was scoring and how consistently we were turning the ball over. Why pull out your starters when they’re getting destroyed? You only do that when they’re playing good. Maybe it’s just me, and Jay is usually good at this, but player management was weak for me tonight.
DeMar DeRozan, after starting out on fire, brimming with confidence, got pulled as well in that first quarter. Just to make sure he was completely cooled down, Triano put him back in with about 6 minutes to go in the second, he ended up playing 22 minutes, 5 of which were just garbage time. He should have played more. His shot is starting to come around and he was playing with growing confidence. Why not leave him out there a little longer? Isn’t he a big part of our future? Hedo is not getting any younger, Bosh and Calderon are entering their primes. DeRozan must develop sooner than later. Instead of having Jarret Jack doubling up with Calderon, give some of these minutes to DeRozan, he’ll make ya proud.
Speaking of Jarret Jack, he did have a good second quarter which was played at a frenetic pace for the most part. Jack seemed to thrive in that situation. He made the right plays on the breaks, and showed good aggressiveness. The thing with Jack is that he might be putting too much pressure on himself. It’s mostly mental with him, and I do think brighter days are ahead. He did have a tough time dealing with an aggressive Ty Lawson later in the game. He’s not the quickest guy and he will have trouble with speedier types. People were hoping for a lockdown defender to compensate for Jose’s deficiencies but Jarret’s not that guy, sorry to break your heart. We have to look elsewhere for that defensive stopper.
Marco Belinelli needs more of a role on this team and I think he is already on his way to becoming our most valuable bench player, moreso than Jack at this point. He can light it up in a hurry, and he looked like the only player with any kind of life in that horrible third quarter. He made a couple of strong drives to the bucket to keep the defense honest. He plays with a lot of energy, he plays smart, and he is showing that he is versatile. Spots up well, even follows his own shot looking for the rebound, something our bigs don’t do enough of. He has definitely earned more minutes but at whose expense? Sonny Weems looked good as well, I really don’t know why any NBA team would give up on this guy after one year. He is very athletic, has an adequate shot, and even showed an impressive turnaround jumper that would be hard to deal with if he ever got consistent with it. There are bad offensive players and then there is Antoine Wright. Is it just me or does he go into slow-motion whenever he has the ball? Why do players like this not know their role only when they join the Raptors? (See Moon, Jamario and Humphries, Kris)
Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani both had quiet games offensively. Bosh had loads of trouble doing anything against Nene, and he didn’t seem to get a couple of calls that usually go his way. The thing with Bosh is that he relies so heavily on getting whistles, that when he doesn’t get a couple of them, it affects his offensive game. He becomes a little reluctant to take it back inside. Obviously this hasn’t happened much this year. Yes, Bosh has gotten bigger, but he’s still nowhere close to Nene’s hulking frame and probably never will be. This was a game where Bosh should have tried more of a perimeter game, as much as some people dislike that notion. As for Bargnani, Nene’s physical presence was too much for him and after picking up early fouls he was a complete non-factor. Nice dunk, though.
All in all, there are positive things to take from this loss, like the play of our guards and our overall performance in the first half of this game. That’s about it. The rest there is nothing you can do about. A possible MVP candidate that we have no one to guard against, a strong defensive frontcourt that cleans up, and a guy like JR Smith who can light it up from well behind the 3-point, while falling on the floor, while signing autographs. Oh yeah, and a former NBA Finals MVP running the team. The prospect of facing this group will leave more than a few teams gasping, even if it isn’t in the rarefied Denver air.