Raptors hang on in ugly finish to improve to 3-0 in Vegas

PEAK Summer League.

Raptors 82, Nuggets 81 | Box Score

As the Toronto Raptors tipped off their third game of Las Vegas Summer League on Monday, they were faced with a tough philosophical dilemma: Is winning, going 3-0 in the early stage of the tournament, and getting a bye really what gives a team the best odds of winning the whole thing when the result also includes two days off in the desert? The 0-2 Denver Nuggets opposite them, meanwhile, were facing down the prospect of a winless round robin and a path to the consolation bracket, potentially cutting their trip short. Tough calls all around, really.

Of course, there’s too much on the line individually for anyone to think this way, Lakers’ Vegas-tanking be damned. The Raptors want to win, even if the closing moments of their 82-81 victory in this one may have suggested otherwise.

“We’re playing to win this tournament,” said coach Jama Mahlalela. “Winning is your best learning. Finding a way to win the basketball game, that’s the goal of the game, so the more you practice that ultimate goal, the better you’re gonna be.”

Fred VanVleet joked the other day that while his focus was on winning the championship here, he wouldn’t be mad at it if he ended up taking home the Summer League MVP award that his pal Norman Powell was close to securing the last two years. At least, he seemed to be joking. He came out Monday playing like he was deadly serious, dominating the first half against the Nuggets with a perfect shooting line and game-high 13 points. When he wasn’t hitting deep threes or pushing his way to the line, he was facilitating for others, his two assist in the half underselling his floor generalship.

Part of that was degering to Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl for stretches, because the Raptors’ sophomores were once again active early. Poeltl struggled a little bit around the rim opposite the bulky Henry Sims, but that’s an area he’s shown improvement in this week, and he flashed a feathery touch on a couple of looks in the paint. Siakam, meanwhile, continued his hyper-aggressive offensive play, attacking off the bounce and showing off a nifty crossover and behind-the-back move, generally looking like a wing with the ball in his hands rather than a big. He even capped a solid half with a corner three, shortly after he had driven baseline to set one up for Alfonzo McKinnie.

McKinnie, by the way, had a highlight-reel half, throwing down a monster put-back jam, dunking on another possession, missing a near-alley-oop, and getting blocked a couple of times. It was a busy half, and while he shot 3-of-9, he was a big factor in disrupting Denver at both ends and in cleaning up the glass.

The Raptors’ defense wasn’t quite at the level they’d like it to be, though, and it allowed Denver to hang around through the first and most of the second. Toronto pulled away toward the end of the half, opening up a nine-point lead after locking down for an extensive stretch (Denver wound up shooting 38.2 percent through the break).

Things may have gotten out of hand early in the third if it weren’t for a temporary Malik Beasley show on Denver’s side (he had a 12-point quarter, which seemed to give the Nuggets a bit of extra life. As the quarter wore on, Toronto’s defense slipped a bit again, and after a Nikola Radicevic and-one, Siakam quite vocally challenged his teammates to step up the intensity at that end. Siakam followed with another three, this one from the elbow, but the damage had been done and Denver took a two-point lead into the fourth on the back of a 12-of-21 shooting quarter.

An all-bench unit somewhat surprisingly grabbed the lead back, with big-man Jalen Reynolds hitting a three to give the team a boost. Poeltl’s return then saw him spring the floor for a transition dunk, and as VanVleet and Siakam checked back in, they did so down a point with six minutes to go. Poeltl got one over on Sims in the post, then another, and that seemed to fuel both sides, setting up a fenetic back-and-forth down the stretch.

“I think we went to him in the post a few times today, consistently, and he could really slow the game down for us, which is something we needed in that phase of the game,” Mahlalela said.

Siakam and McKinnie both had nice tip-ins to grab a lead, but a few careless mistakes fave Denver late life. Beasley drove baseline down three, missed through help, and Poeltl secured a massive defensive rebound in a sea of bodies.

The finish, well, it was peak Summer League. VanVleet turned the ball over when double-teamed on a full-court press, Siakam fouled on a three, Siakam then turned over the inbounds, stole the ball back, and double-dribbled, all for Denver to turn the ball over on their final possession to end the game. Raptors win, or fail to lose.

“You know, it’s a learning time,” Mahlalela said. “We’re gonna have a lot of film to watch and a lot of different situations to correct. And that’s good for us. These close games really are when you do a lot of learning, for the coaches and for the players. It’s actually exciting in a situation like that, ’cause we can learn so much from that game.”

The Raptors now have the dangerous two days off in Vegas, with a complete off-day tomorrow and a practice to shake off any rust on Wednesday. A championship is in the midst, and they’ll have to turn those lessons to better execution if they’re going to hang a Vegas banner next to their G-League one.


  • As always, yes, all Summer League caveats apply. The context of the tournament needs to be recognized. That doesn’t mean information can’t be pulled from it – positive signs are allowed to breed optimism, and negatives can help inform the rest of a player’s offseason.
  • VanVleet ended up with a 17-2-3 line after his hot start, but since we know he looks at turnovers on the stat sheet first (he had five), he might not feel he had as good a game as he did. Poeltl finished with a third consecutive double-double (17-and-10). Siakam had 14 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, and most notably from a development perspective, four assists.
    • McKinnie had 11 points, and though he shot 5-of-15, it was a better performance than that line. The 1-of-6 mark on threes is a big focus for him the rest of the offseason. He also added 11 rebounds and dished two dimes, and he continues to find a groove defending as he transitions from primarily a power forward to a wing here for Toronto.
  • The Nuggets didn’t get much from their NBA talent outside of Beasley. Juan Hernangomez showed some nice flashes but shot poorly, and Tyler Lydon was a complete non-factor.
  • Kennedy Meeks and Will Sheehey sat out for equal parts rest (they’d have three practice days and three games in six days) and to get a look at some of the other players here. OG Anunoby (knee) and Malcolm Miller (ankle) are out for the tournament. Norman Powell and Delon Wright were on the bench again.
  • The Raptors don’t play until Thursday now. We probably won’t know the time until late Tuesday, and we won’t know the opponent until Wednesday.

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