Denver isn’t a very nice place for the Raptors. If we played word association, the word ‘Nuggets’ would immediately evoke related thoughts such as ‘blowout’, ‘garbage time’, ’39 points’, and of course, ‘Sam Mitchell’. So going into last night, the L was chalked up well beforehand and it was only a matter of time till the formalities commenced, concluded, and were transcribed in prosaic fashion.
The trajectory of the evening was heading right where so many others in years past had ventured: the Raptors conceding an early lead on their way to a 40-point loss. Andrea Bargnani going at Kenneth Faried seemed to be the only offensive option for the Raptors, one I felt they didn’t exploit nearly enough for both point production sakes, and for what it would’ve potentially done to rein in the speed of the game had Bargani been looked for in the post.
With roughly a quarter of the precincts reporting, the Raptors found themselves in a fairly tight game, hovering within five. That was when the second units announced themselves and the bottom gave out, starting with a 10-2 Denver run. Jose Calderon’s play was remarkably poor, his turnovers the result of lazy passes. His transition defense was sapped and his half-court defense on Miller and/or Lawson was laughable. The big men were getting trampled on the glass, with Denver assaulting the boards with intent and a belief of superiority. The Raptors failed to match that early energy on the glass, turned the ball over, and saw Denver convert on the break with blinding speed, agility and efficiency. You had the feeling this could get really ugly.
The Raptors sickening tendency to help on every single play shifted the defense till it cracked, and the quick-moving Nuggets displayed excellent ball movement to punish any irregularities in defensive shape. It`s a known problem which we`ve witnessed all season and in this instance, foreshadowed what was to come late.
Despite DeRozan chipping away at the scoreboard like a carrion crow, the lead was always a comfortable one for Denver. The 31-14 halftime rebounding edge for the Nuggets was only made more embarrassing by the 15-4 offensive rebounding edge the home team boasted. It was simple, the Raptors had somehow, perhaps even unknowingly, found themselves in a classic run ‘n gun game in a high-altitude environment against a team which thrives doing just that. Another instance of Casey failing to impose the Raptors preferred style of play on the game, and instead yielding to the temptation of playing what`s on offer. It was time to reset and that’s what they did, it’s just hard for me to accept why this wasn’t the strategy from the get-go.
In the second half the Raptors started fouling more, the guards made a concerted effort to track back immediately after a shot went up, and the bigs decided to hold rebounding position instead of trying to lunge over athletic Denver bigs who had position. The game changed as suddenly Denver was left to earn their points, putting an end to the ridiculous Corey Brewer nonsense which saw the guy get 16 points in the first half, pretty much all in transition off of turnovers or ill-advised Raptors shots.
The third was played at a reduced pace and the Raptors won it by four, with accreditations held by Bargnani and Lowry, the former continuing his good form, and the latter hammering his way to the rim and pulling up for shots that are likely outside of a set play, but who really notices if they go in? Entering the fourth down 14, you’d have counted the Raptors down and out, and probably discounted any forthcoming token run as no more than the NBA norm.
John Lucas started matters early in the fourth by moving well with the ball, taking the trailing Denver defense with him, and then managing to make a pass which led to decent shots as an aggressive Denver defense failed to parry. Andre Miller responded in-kind, but at least someone other than Ross from the second-unit finally brought some energy to the cause. Ed Davis joined the party shortly and probably had one of his best stretches as a pro. He swallowed rebounds, sometimes even ripping them out from prying hands, and then taking his chances on the offensive end. Davis played like he was 10-feet tall, had giant wings, and breathed fire. Valanciunas, who had had a decent showing including a great reverse dunk, looked winded early in this one. He was shown the bench in favor of a Bargnani and Davis lineup, which supplied offense and defense, respectively.
The furious comeback that followed was built on the foundation of defense and rebounding, and raised on the diet of improbable and heroic offense. Terrence Ross nailed a three after some great interplay by Lowry, Bargnani, and Davis. Lowry pulled up for a massive three, and even Amir Johnson sized up a three of his own. The play that hurt the Raptors, at least the one that stuck out for me, was on the defensive end: Lowry leaving Lawson on the side for a wide-open three, when he had no reason to do so. Iguodala’s drive was met with enough help from the paint that Lowry should’ve stuck with Lawson, and instead the latter was wide open for a three which extended the lead to four with two minutes left.
This play is symptomatic of a larger issue: the Raptors inability to guard anyone on the perimeter in one-on-one situations. It explains why Casey’s perimeter defense is so aggressive at times, he’d rather gamble on a steal than ask this lot to defend in isolation situations! I’m only half-japing here. Our perimeter defense leaves much to be desired, and I understand that help is a necessary part of the game which every team has to provide. The amount and frequency of help that the Raptors provide, though, is disproportionate.
Here’s a couple nuggets of stats from the Quick Reaction post which tells a bit of a tale: Raptors were down -19 at one point, and came back to almost tie it at the buzzer, but for DeRozan’s miss at the buzzer. They were -15 on the glass for the first half, but only -1 in the second. They were -11 on the offensive glass in the first half, and only -3 in the second. The Raptors were -24 FTA for the game.
All in all, given the historical evidence, this one was a loss from the start. I’m pleased to say that I stuck around to watch this because it turned out to be quite an entertaining one in the fourth, and it’s good to see the Raptors compete. Some might say too little too late, and they’d be right, but as I write this recap at 1AM at night, I need something to convince me that this was worth it. And that comeback was.