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Raptors 109, Nuggets 108 – Box

Don’t let the victory fool you: this is a game that the Raptors should have won more decisively. They had some defensive lapses and were very sloppy with the ball, coughing up a lead that got as large as 12 in the first half. It took a huge fourth quarter from John Lucas and some heroics from “The Closer” Rudy Gay to seal a 109-108 victory over a Denver Nuggets team that is very good but was also without three wing players in Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.

Despite the huge advantage on the wing, the Raptors lost the battle in the paint and at the point guard position, as Ty Lawson and The Manimal Kenneth Faried had their way. Lawson is a tough check for anyone, but Lucas and Kyle Lowry did a poor job staying in front of him. Lawson dropped 29 with nine dimes on 12-of-20 shooting, and his shot chart is almost entirely in the paint. The bigs failed to adequately help against him at times, but most of the blame has to sit with the point guards.

Faried, meanwhile, had 15-and-11 with a pair of steals. He also turned the ball over four times, however, giving back some of what he added for the Nuggets. Somehow Kosta Koufos chipped in with five offensive rebounds and 10 overall, while Anthony Freakin’ Randolph had 16 points and seven rebounds. Anthony Randolph, getting his, including in crunch time, against the Raptors. This was the first time he’s shown signs of life all season, and while he can be a dynamic player, guys need to be called out when he goes off like that.

Amir Johnson didn’t have his best game on the defensive end but also contributed all over the court with his usual hustle plays. Jonas Valanciunas showed the usual flashes of what makes him such an enticing player – extra effort, savvy plays, solid free throw shooting – but also had four turnovers and got lost at times on the defensive end. He still shows so much, though, and it’s tough not to get excited about what he can do once he’s “figured it out.” In the end, Johnson had eight-and-seven while Jonas had eight-and-eight. “That other big,” Andrea Bargnani, looked awful, scoring just four points with a single rebound in 18 minutes. If it weren’t for the missed jumpers (two-for-seven), it would have been tough to notice he was on the floor. I’m not trying to pile on the guy, but he played really poorly in this one.

I mentioned the point guard battle, too, and I’ll touch on Lowry’s play before we get to the wings. While he had 11 points and 10 dimes, he had four turnovers and lost Lawson a handful of times. The defensive stopper Lowry was advertised to be hasn’t arrived with any consistency yet, and it’s bad when people are tweeting at me to get JL3 in the game. Lucas, for what it’s worth, hit four straight threes at the start of the fourth quarter, shutting me right up and keeping the Raps in it as the Nuggets tried yet another surge.

DeMar DeRozan is probably deserving of the game ball, posting 22 points and eight rebounds. He took 18 shots to get there, and I’d pick apart his shot selection but his mid-range jumper was working pretty well in this one. He stuck with it, shooting five-for-eight from that area. He struggled to finish in the paint, hurting his efficiency despite making the right choice more often than not. He probably could have been called on for more scoring given Evan Fournier and Jordan Hamilton were on him for stretches, sure, but he also had one of the best in-game dunks of the season:

Perhaps that was a make-up for this, from a year or two back:

So, yeah, DeRozan was pretty good when the team needed it. Landry Fields also chipped in with some useful minutes on the odd night when all the bench wings played alright. Fields, Anderson and Ross played 15, 13 and 14 minutes, respectively, and all showed the good and the bad in their games. Anderson chucked but was hitting in the fourth, as is his modus operandi whenever I complain about him. Ross had a three-and-dunk sequence but then quickly made a pair of rookie mistakes. Fields had eight points and was a pest on offense but teams still aren’t respecting him as a floor spacer. It’d be great if one of these guys, preferably a young one, could iron out the kinks and solidify the “first wing off the bench” role, but we don’t seem to be inching closer to that point.

And then there’s Rudy Gay. Gay had foul trouble early and often, limiting him to 25 minutes. He still managed 17 points, two of which were pretty important:

The Nuggets announcers didn’t seem too surprised:

Compare that winner with his winner from the Indiana game:

Yes, the Raptors appear to have the vaunted “closer” now. Gay hasn’t been hyper-efficient since joining the Raptors, but fans have consistently lamented the lack of a late-game finisher since the days of Vince Carter, and Gay appears to be that. I didn’t have a chance to pull his numbers from that baseline position, but I would bet that’s his go-to in isolation situations. He’s so damn good at creating separation for his jump-shot, unlike DeRozan, who requires a spin move, that even if they’re not the greatest shot selections they have a decent chance of falling.

He’s now taken 60 shots within the last five minutes of games within five points, which is the ninth most in the league. DeRozan has 70 such attempts, fourth in the league, but I’m sure you’ll see those ranks change now that Gay is “the man” in Toronto. Gay has already taken 15 such shots as a Raptor while DeRozan has taken eight in that same span.

It’s nice to have someone to take those high-leverage attempts, that’s for sure. The Raptors have now won three straight and move to just six games back of the final playoff spot in the East. Off to New York to face the Knicks (check back in a few hours for my pre-game), while Milwaukee and Philadelphia square off. It’s possible, though maybe not likely, the Raptors could be just five games back at the All Star break with 29 games to play. It’s a pipe dream, but it’s not insane.

I may have missed some key points, but I was told to keep it brief (1,000 words later…sorry) as we have this, Steve’s Rapcast season premiere, and a Knicks pre-game going up soon. Yell at me in the comments if you must.