Chill, Vale, we got this.

The Raptors begin The Roadtrip of Doom in Denver tonight, coming in at 4-13 and looking at maybe 6-16 as a best case scenario by next Tuesday. Denver has been extremely inconsistent this season and have lost three straight, making their pattern so far 3L-4W-3L-4W-3L, so I suppose they’re due for another four-game winning streak.

The Raptors don’t match up particularly well given that Andre Iguodala can lock down DeMar DeRozan, Kenneth Faried can outwork every Raptor on the glass, and we apparently traded Andrea Bargnani’s Soul in the offseason.

Before we get into the analysis, though, Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company was kind enough to answer a few questions on tonight’s match-up.

The Nuggets have lost three straight, with the defense looking like the key culprit. Is this a short-term blip, or do the Nuggets have some defensive issues to work out?
My greatest concern heading into the season was the Nuggets’ defensive deficiencies. Denver has traditionally been an above average defensive team under George Karl, but last season saw a frustrating decline both statistically and empirically. Denver’s greatest struggle is to defend the perimeter. A sweet shooting guard can always get off an open three off the high pick and roll as the Nugget bigs simply do not get out to help on the screen and contest the shot. Both Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon should be able to take advantage.

Denver’s rotations were nonexistent last season and while they are improved this year, they are still deficient. They continue to struggle to challenge shooters on the weak side and players like Jodie Meeks, who shot 6-7 from behind the arc against Denver on Friday, have feasted on the Nuggets.

Surprisingly, not all of Denver’s struggles are on the defensive side of the ball. The Nuggets have greatly hindered themselves by turning the ball over, especially in the second half, and missing free throws. Denver converted only 18 of 32 freebies in a two point loss at Utah last week.

Has Danilo Gallinari magically gotten bad, or is he coming around? Seems to be something going on with Italian players right now…
One thing I have noticed with Gallo is he is a slow starter. Last season it took him time to find his groove, and then every time he returned from missing time due to an injury, he was slow to bounce back. Gallinari is in the process of hitting his stride offensively over the last week averaging 17 points on 45.7% shooting including 9 of 16 from three point range. Early in the season most of his shots were coming from 18 feet and beyond, but Gallinari is getting better at attacking the rim and posting up. I expect Gallo to continue to build in his recent performances and return to his almost-an-all-star-but-not-quite level of performance.

What is more fun: Watching The Manimal Kenneth Faried play, or getting to consistently observe Epic Vale Javale McGee?
While both players provide endless entertainment Nuggets fans all love The Manimal. McGee has actually toned down his act considerably since arriving in Denver. His pilgrimage to Hakeem Olajuwon has paid obvious dividends. McGee is more polished on offense and not a complete train wreck on defense. McGee still plays out of position and tries to block too many shots. One egregious example was last week against Utah when he cheated across the lane in the hopes of blocking a shot by Al Jefferson, who was already defended by 7’ 1” teammate Timofey Mozgov. McGee could not get any closer than under the rim and as a result gave up a wide open put back when Jefferson missed. However, the egregious goaltends are becoming few and far between. I believe McGee gets goaltending calls on reputation as he has had several close calls all go against him. Refs just expect him to goaltend.

Faried is the kind of player who is easy to root for. He is always giving it his all and even when he does the wrong thing, you know his motor of a heart is in the right place. Faried has also visited Olajuwon this summer and is now a tad more effective around the rim than he was last year when, if he was not dunking the ball, he was probably going to miss.
Faried is undersized and McGee continues to struggle with the finer points of NBA basketball. However, when they are both playing well, the Nuggets own the paint.

What would you identify as the key to the game for the Nuggets? What may be the one area the Raptors could exploit to steal a win?
Denver is at their best when they defend well. As mentioned above, the Nuggets have shown improvement, but still struggle on the perimeter. The bad news for Raptors fans is Toronto is the kind of team the Nuggets tend to do well against. Toronto is not defending well right now and they are not a great three point shooting team with multiple players who can hurt Denver from behind the arc. They also do not have a power forward who can take advantage of Faried on the block.

In my mind the key to the game will be Andrea Bargnani. If he can have a big night from the perimeter, and Lowry and Calderon can hurt Denver from the top of the circle on the high pick and roll, Toronto can keep themselves in the game. However, if misses from the perimeter lead to easy run outs by Denver, Toronto will end up experiencing another double digit loss in the Mile High City as they have on four of their last five trips.

Tale of the Tape
Off Rating: Denver 106.6 (11th), Toronto 102.2 (22nd)
Def Rating: Denver 106.8 (23rd), Toronto 107.5 (25th)
Pace: Denver 92.7 (8th), Toronto 91.4 (19th)
Strength: Denver Offensive Rebounding (1st), Toronto Ball Control (3rd lowest TO%)
Weakness: Denver Forcing Turnovers (27th), Toronto Hacking (3rd in opponent FT/FGA)

Positional Breakdown
Point GuardKyle Lowry and Jose Calderon v. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller
Advantage: Nuggets
Ty Lawson has been a pretty serious disappointment so far, shooting just 40% and scoring just 13 points a game when he was expected to take “the leap” this year. That said, Kyle Lowry has also been disappointing and is clearly playing hurt, plus his defense hasn’t been nearly as strong as a) advertised or b) Lawson’s. Miller is somehow still an adequate back-up at age 36 and is the best alley-oop thrower in the NBA. Jose Calderon is probably better offensively at this point, but he’s going to get torched any time the lightning-quick Lawson is in the game with him.

WingsDeMar DeRozan, Mickael Pietrus, Linas Kleiza and Terrence Ross v. Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler
Advantage: Nuggets
Gallo and Iggy both score about 16 a game, chip in on the glass, and help with assists. As Jeremy mentioned, Gallo is heating up from the perimeter, which will make him a challenge defensively, especially for Kleiza since Gallo can put the ball on the floor, too. Iggy is one of the top wing defender’s in the league and is significantly stronger than DeRozan without giving up too much in the quickness department, making this a really tough match-up for DeMar. Pietrus looked fine in his debut but isn’t going to be a difference-maker beyond the fact that he’s replacing some really poor minutes with adequate minutes. Ross might be in for a good game if the Raptors try to run with the faster-paced Nuggets, as he’s thrived in wide open games thus far. Corey Brewer adds another defensive element off the bench, though I personally can’t stand watching him.

BigsAndrea Bargnani, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Boss Davis v. Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey “Moz Def” Mozgov
Advantage: Raptors
Faried is the best big in the game but the Raptors might arguably have the next four best (though I wouldn’t argue this, Epic Vale FTW!), as McGee and Koufos are still figuring out the game while Mozgov is still figuring out how to avoid junk in his face on posters. I would hope Davis gets some run to try and combat Faried’s efficiency on the glass, while Amir might be the best bet to handle him on defense (assuming he shows up). Bargnani is, as usual, the key offensively since he’s the only Raptor who will have an appreciable match-up advantage, working from the perimeter against an interior-oriented set of bigs. The Raptors have simply not been outworking teams, and that’s something they’ll need to do in this one. Oh, and Jonas…well, he should be alright banging with Koufos, and he’s already a headier player than McGee, so assuming the guards look his way out of the pick and roll rather than attacking Lawson (a mistake), he could have a decent showing.

The Pick
Vegas has the line at Denver by 10, which sounds about right given the difference in talent, effort and performance thus far. Hollinger’s Power Rankings would predict Nuggets by nine, if that’s more your thing. I don’t like the Raptors’ chances, but I’m at least looking forward to watching Faried go gangbusters when the Raptors don’t hustle for rebounds. So tune in to TSN2 at 9 p.m. to see the Raptors lose by…7.