Nuggets 97, Raptors 96 – Box

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: If we play with that kind of effort every night we’ll be in most of the games with a chance to win them. Problem is that this was Game 71 and we have 11 more left before the playoffs and Lebron descend into Toronto. An excruciating loss like this can serve as motivation and reaffirmation that we are better than our record and instill so-far-missing belief in this team, or will we go back to our waywardly ways. Sunday and Monday against Charlotte and Miami should answer those questions, but until then we got to pick up the pieces and examine what went right and wrong tonight.

The lineup on our final defensive play was Bosh, Wright, DeRozan, Weems and Jack. Triano went small hoping to switch on the perimeter and not concede anything going to the rim; the strategy isn’t crazy because as physical as the Nuggets are inside, they are a wing-oriented team and most of their possessions start with Billups and Anthony. However, Wright (6rebs) was our second-best rebounder on the floor and he was checking Anthony and would never be in great defensive rebounding position. It’s also common sense that since Denver is down by one, they’ll take their shot early enough to have a go at the offensive rebound and our personnel on the floor played right into the trap. I’ve seen the play a couple times and the guilty party appears to be DeRozan who didn’t put a body on Anthony Carter and let him cause enough disturbance near the rim that Denver got the ball back with the Raptors defense completely disjointed, as is the case after offensive rebounds. Personally, I was hoping to see two rebounders and three guards out there since it was 100% known that Denver would be sending everyone to rebound after their shot-attempt.

Unfortunately, Bargnani’s 15 rebounds and Amir Johnson’s 10 boards were both secured to the pine as the final moments of this heartbreaker unfolded.

The change in the starting lineup paid dividends, Turkoglu was out with things only Turkoglu can be out with which meant Wright got the start. Weems (14pts, 5-8FG) was given the nod over DeRozan, probably because he was facing his former team and has shown much more than the rookie on the defensive end, and after the Jazz performance that was the priority. He got off to a great start knocking down his mid-range jumpers; all of his shots were in rhythm and didn’t seem forced, even Wright fired his early bricks out of great ball movement which I won’t criticize but say that he rarely has any business taking a shot outside of a layup. The result of the starting lineup tweak was a defensively active unit that pressured the Denver wings and didn’t concede anything easy. Jose Calderon had a very poor game and it was by exploiting him that Denver managed to get their early 7-point first quarter lead, their penetration against him combined with solid big-to-big interior passing was their prime offensive option. That and Carmelo Anthony, usually Billups joins in on the fun but on this night he was 4-18 and looked to be handing us the game until he hit that huge three late on.

We criticize Triano for not making in-game adjustments but tonight he finally made a tweak, he switched Weems on Billups leaving Calderon to check Arron Afflalo who rarely has the ball in his hands to drive. The move paid off as Weems was able to bother Billups with his size resulting in his poor shooting night. DeRozan (15pts, 7-8 FG) was the first guy off the bench and he delivered a typically aggressive DeRozan game, forcing the issue and wanting to take it all the way to the rim on even the slightest break opportunity, his efforts had him with 13 points at the break and the main reason for our 33-22 FBP edge. Marco Belinelli had 16 the last time these two teams played and he came off the bench fresher than a spring chicken and notched 7 quick points. Unfortunately, his second-half display was much less impressive but that’s how things are with him – hot and cold.

Above everything, the team put forth an honest effort unlike against the Jazz. This was a night where Triano could come out and say that without looking like a guy who’s obviously lying to himself. Bargnani’s effort made me wonder why he can’t bring this same attitude every night and why he can’t be one of the double-double leaders in the NBA, it’s all about effort and wanting to get to the glass and tonight he did and got 15 rebounds out of it. Why this man is averaging less than half that is mind-blogging, it’s almost like he undervalues the importance of rebounds and needs to be reminded of it, hell, I could care less about his 5-13 FGs tonight because he played the way a center is supposed to play – BIG. We were +20 in rebounding and +8 on the offensive glass for the game, and shot 56% in the first half, so why were we up only 4 points at the break? Turnovers, and whenever you speak of turnovers these days, it has to start with Chris Bosh.

Bosh’s line is, as usual, respectable – 18/12 on 8-16FG. What it doesn’t say is that he let Johan Petro and Nene force him into taking contested forced shots. He had five turnovers in this game and the ones in the second-half were crucial. He almost botched the second-last possession of the game by holding the ball for way too long but was fortunate enough to be bailed out by the refs who called a foul on Nene in a loose ball situation. The replay showed it was a clean steal, to make matters worse he bricked the first of two FTs which meant Denver was going to go for the win instead of the tie on the final possession. Nene also got two key offensive rebounds over him which were converted for four points and outscored him 8-4 in the fourth quarter – as respectable as Bosh’s line appears to be, there were many issues with his defensive game and his offensive poise, both of which are key elements of a franchise player. Denver’s agile big men are a tough matchup for anybody, but if you want your name bandied about as the “best PF in the NBA”, you have to come out and deliver in these games, dropping 36 points on Brook Lopez isn’t going to cut it.

Carmelo Anthony might’ve bricked two FTs but he made amends with his jumper, Billups might’ve had a stinker of a game, but all people will remember is his massive three with Jack’s hand in his face. The closest we came to a clutch offensive play was Andrea Bargnani taking advantage of his momentum against a stationary Nene for a three-point play which, to be honest, should’ve been enough for us to win the game if only Bosh and him had managed to secure the defensive rebound after ‘Melo’s misses. Antoine Wright had no business taking a freestyle three at 1:15 of the fourth quarter, that’s where floor leadership comes into play and you go to your bread-and-butter instead of trying to be a hero. It’s little things like these that lose you games and as well as we played, as great as our effort was, all it takes is a small lapse in focus to lose big games.

An 8-0 third quarter run in which Weems scored 6 points (2 mid-range jumpers and two FTs) gave us an 8 point lead which we actually stretched to 10 a couple minutes into the fourth. At this point it looked like Denver would throw the game away, they had unforced turnovers on 2-1 fastbreaks, blew layup after layup and took such questionable shots that you realize that if you were a fan of that team, you’d be tearing your hair out every night. During a 5:40 stretch in the first half of the fourth quarter we had a chance to put this game away, but instead let Denver back in it by committing four turnovers and taking jumpers. In this crucial stretch the lineup of Bosh, Bargnani, Jack, Weems and DeRozan failed to provide the offensive punch that was needed. Jack’s 4 turnovers and 2-11 FG stick out on the boxscore because whenever he assumes the role of scorer-first, he gets in trouble. Denver was within 3 at the 5:13 mark and it was a game again with them having the clutch players. At this point you had to favor them.

What did we learn? Well, as was being preached around these parts for quite some time, more defense and less offense in our lineups is the key to us being competitive, especially when a usually offensive-minded player like Bargnani has a strong defensive game. We saw in the first half how well the ball moved with one primary ball-handler (Jose or Jack) and a bunch of defensive minded guys; Tom Liston spoke of role definition in his post on Friday and we saw that Weems and Wright can play a damn good defensive role without the team losing too much on offense. DeRozan can be the sparkplug off the bench as well as in the starting lineup, and Bargnani has the potential to be a game-changer even though he’s not having the best offensive game. Other than three of his shots against Nene in the block (no need to take a J against him), I can’t really complain much, in fact, I’m all for giving him more touches as long as those touches are in the block going to the rim. If more touches means more jumpers, then forget about it, I’ll give those shots to someone like Weems instead. As bad as Bosh was at times today, we should recognize his 5 assists because he did handle the Denver doubles fairly well in the first half where 4 of those assists happened, it’s the second half where he lost his nerves.

The Raptors provided very little help defense today because Anthony, Billups and J.R Smith were, for the most part, kept in check and had to get their points on their own. Other than Anthony Carter’s penetration in the first half, our perimeter defense was solid which meant we didn’t put our bigs in vulnerable help positions nor did we have to send help from the 2 or 3 spots. Holding Denver to 41% shooting (5% below season average) is a pretty impressive feat for the worst defensive team in the league and we have to take the lessons learned from this game and apply it in the future.

One-Liners:

  • It bugged me the way the Raptors players hugged and interacted with the Denver players after the final whistle. We just lost a god-damned heartbreaker here, I was distraught and was expecting them to be too.
  • Can Devlin please stop telling us what Charlotte’s upto because we’re not chasing them, they’re chasing Miami, that’s about it.
  • Sonny Weems celebrated his good game by going to the Keg.
  • If Bosh, Bargnani and Jack had had better offensive games, this one was in the bag but we managed to lose despite shooting 6% higher (47% to 41%). Despite the massive disparity in rebounding, the second chance points were even at 15 because of our poor at-times poor shot-selection.
  • Joey Graham looks bigger and slower.
  • Amir Johnson had 10 rebounds in 14 minutes.
  • The potential to do well is there, it’s a matter of effort, professionalism and character. And of course, recognizing what lineups work well, but that really isn’t that hard.

I want to see the same effort in Charlotte.

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