Raptors 81, Nuggets 96 – Box

Big win for Toronto. They came back from a major deficit and were able to survive a stubborn counter attack and hold on for the victory. The MVP for Toronto this night had to be Josh Sanderson, who led the way with three goals and two assists. Wait a minute … I think I got my gamers mixed up there. This is supposed to be a recap of the Raptors vs. Nuggets tilt; not the rousing Rock vs. Knighthawks lacrosse game I saw when I switched on TSN2. Sorry for the mistake. Obviously I must have temporarily mixed up my channels. It would be laughable for a lacrosse game to bump a professional basketball game. Right? For a lacrosse match to bump a professional basketball game off the dial there would have to be such a dearth of enthusiasm for that NBA team, their ratings would have to be so pathetic, that subbing them for lacrosse action would seem like a plausible scenario. Oh wait…

Just as the Rock were popping champagne back at the ACC, TSN2 switched over to the Raptors game already in progress. The collective fan base were robbed of precious minutes of promising Raptor action, with the team taking the momentum from that inspiring performance in Phoenix and translating it into an eight point lead early in the first quarter. Kleiza was already on the bench at that point but Devlin assured us he was in the starting lineup. Going 0-4 to start the game seems to explain the quick hook. Despite having lost Felton due to injury, and three of their main rotation players from last year to overseas defections, Denver came ready to play. In case you somehow managed to miss it, Bargnani is out indefinitely with another calf injury, and his absence from this game once again completely derailed the Raptors. With a little under four minutes to go in the first quarter Denver was cruising with the score at 14-2. With the help of their bench (Bayless and Barbosa) the Raptors were able to make it somewhat respectable by the end the first, 28-12. Believe me, it could have been much, much worse. Before the buzzer sounded, Andre Miller heaved a shot from three quarters court and made it. I’m betting that’s when probably a lot of folks started changing channels, and for those who didn’t, it was about to get plenty worse.

With the game already well in hand, Denver seemed content to watch the Bayless and Barbosa show, with the former taking open jumpers when they presented themselves, and Barbosa going one on five, which he is prone to do. At one point in the second quarter, our two combo guards off the bench had combined for 17 of the Raptors 21 points. They seemed to be the only players in a Toronto uniform who seemed mildly interested in contributing, and if it wasn’t for their offensive efforts, this game would have turned from ugly to just plain hideous. Coming off that game in Phoenix that had me questioning why I’d written him off so quickly, Kleiza managed just two points and was constantly targeted as a defensive liability. Denver was clinical in dissecting Toronto’s defense. They played unselfishly, always looking for the open man, and were able to score efficiently no matter what defensive scheme Casey threw at them. The TV cameras managed to find some Toronto fans in the crowd, looking utterly miserable, and who can blame them. At the half the Raptors were down 48-27, and it seemed like the team was headed toward a loss for the ages.

But once the third quarter got rolling, a Raptors starter decided maybe he would get rolling too. James Johnson, after already contributing solid defense in the first half, cranked up his offense; hitting jump shots, driving to the bucket, and adding a ferocious put-back dunk. Bayless and Barbosa continued their solid production and all that, coupled with some sloppy play by the usually crisp Nuggets, somehow whittled the Denver lead to 12 points at the end of the third.

The Raptors took the momentum into the fourth, and with a three-headed attack — Bayless, Barbosa and some effective picks by Jamal Magloire (most of which should have been called fouls) — the Raptors somehow cut the lead to six. I cannot describe to you the disbelief with which I met this wonder. After watching painfully as the Raptors wandered aimlessly on offense for the majority of the game, I found them right in the thick of it with one of the best teams in the NBA. Finally, a game worth watching. Until all of the sudden, it wasn’t. Bayless gets pulled for Jose, who had another uncharacteristically bad game; James Johnson gets pulled for Butler — need I say more? — and Barbosa gets pulled for DeMar. Mr. Fourth Quarter decided that since he’d already taken the first part of the game off (DeMar was 0-10 at one point in the third), there wasn’t much point in giving an effort when the game was on the line. He ended with 8 points on 3-15 shooting. Sure he had a couple of baskets, but DeMar seemed so timid at being the first option that even Kleiza had plays run for him in the fourth. Swapping Barbosa for DeMar effectively killed the Raptors hopes of winning this game, which I suppose is a good thing if you’re one of those Big Picture types firmly entrenched in the tank camp.

The game came to a puzzling conclusion when Al Harrington took issue with Kleiza’s foul at the 30 second mark (it seemed harmless enough) and began to lose his collective shit. His incessant verbal barrage gave Kleiza no other choice but to shove him, and everyone jumped up, perhaps anticipating they might get their money’s worth after all, by way of a good-old bench clearing brawl. But even there, disappointment. Cooler heads prevailed, the refs doled out some techs, everyone was subjected to a few more minutes of boredom, and the Nuggets won by 15.

A few quick notes: First of all, I really question Casey’s decision to nail Amir to the bench in favor of Gray. Is Amir, one of the only Raptors who consistently goes out and gives every ounce of effort at his disposal, really the Raptor you want to make an example of? Second, I’m beginning to hope that the Raptors lose by 40 to 50 points real soon, which is completely plausible, especially with Bargnani out for aswhile. These 10 to 20 point losses are just way too misleading. The Raptors are giving just enough effort in these losses to seem respectable, and in the end they are doing themselves (and their fans) a disservice. A true blowout loss might force the organization to make a move, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Raptors are in need of one. Even with the shortened season, I can’t take too many more of these games. Go Rock.

Ed’s Note: David Helm again.