Denver is never an easy place to play and the Raptors didn’t make it easy on themselves with a lethargic effort from the tip, losing 129-111 to bring their season record to 4-3.
Norm Powell was the leading scorer with 14 points, with a variety of others chipping in low double-digit point totals. Kitchener, Ontario’s Jamal Murray starred for Denver despite missing a bit of time after diving into the stands for a loose ball. The second-year guard scored 24 points on 8-10 shooting, including 3-5 from deep. Toronto couldn’t make a shot from outside when it mattered, shooting 5-21 through three quarters of action before the bench made some in garbage time.
The result comes as a bit of a surprise given that Toronto was back to full health. Jonas Valanciunas returned after missing four games with an ankle injury and Serge Ibaka played after sitting out for the Portland game with right knee soreness.
Seeing the two back in the line-up was a welcome sight for a brief time. From the outset, Toronto’s pick and roll defence wasn’t good enough. The Nuggets offence, second-best in the NBA post All-Star break last season, has been inconsistent to start this year, but this was a bit of get-healthy game for them. They ran their offence with much more flow, timing dribble hand-offs well and making decisive second passes to capitalize on compromised defences.
Ibaka and Valanciunas struggled to handle pick and rolls using dribble hand-offs, often conceding too much space or not occupying meaningful space. Right away, Ibaka got beat badly by Paul Millsap. The former Hawk hit a corner three out of a pick and pop where Ibaka didn’t close out with much intent. Millsap hit another three after that, then Ibaka was called for a (dubious) foul on a three later. Denver did not miss a shot until the 7:20 mark of the first quarter. Later, Valanciunas gave up an easy alley-oop to Kenneth Faried because JV dropped too far back.
Offensively, Toronto was out of sorts. Denver’s aggressive pick and roll coverage can be taken advantage of by passes, but the Raptors weren’t sharp enough. In the early goings, the team looked out of sorts. Norm Powell had a nice dunk early, but followed it up with a chaotic pass after leaving his feet that ended up deep in the stands. Lowry maneuvered his way under the basket, either struggling to find an open teammate or the teammate missing the shot.
Given the slow start, Casey put the bench unit in early but it was more of the same. Bad offensive possessions led to easy defensive rebounds and the bench didn’t run back in transition. Denver’s not a particularly deep team, so gifting them easy transition scores was just Toronto shooting themselves in the foot. The Raps found themselves down 34-19 after the first quarter.
The team steadied a bit in the second. They found Valanciunas open for an easy dunk under the basket, taking advantage of the hedging defence. Toronto couldn’t put together enough stops and only took a point off the Nuggets advantage.
The third quarter was promising for a fleeting moment. The Raptors trimmed the lead to nine by way of improved defence and aggressive play spearheaded by Lowry and DeRozan. But the defence disappeared and Denver went on another run to really put Toronto away. Young Gunz 2.0 played out the rest of the game and were moderately successful, trimming a 30-point deficit to 18.
This is just One Of Those Games. Given the altitude and the Nuggets style of play, Denver is a hard place to play. You’re probably rolling your eyes as you read that because it is such a cliche at this point. And I get it: you have a reason to expect this roster to be above these kind of excuses.
Some would argue that getting Denver early in the season is tough as-is because players are still working their way into game-shape. With a shortened preseason, that argument has a bit more weight to it. If you’re not buying it, I hear you and I’m with you. An argument like this can be hard to quantify and I am not buying.
What can be quantified is the continued struggles from distance. While Toronto finished 11-31, they were shooting 5-21 through three quarters. Heading into the Denver game, the Raptors were fifth in three-point attempt rate, but last in three-point percentage. Joshua Howe wrote about the distance shooting earlier this week and the numbers are a bit dated now, but the general message stands up: the volume three-point shooters are underperforming, so let’s not panic yet.
Powell’s struggles from deep continued, shooting 1-5. Lowry couldn’t get on track either, shooting 1-5 from distance as well. Getting back home would do the whole team some good, especially these two, but that will have to wait. Toronto heads to Utah to take on the Jazz on Friday Nov. 3 before taking on a strong Washington Wizards team on Sunday.