The Toronto Raptors wanted more tests as they get ready for the postseason. The Denver Nuggets were more than happy to oblige on Tuesday. In coming out with a 114-110 victory, the Raptors didn’t show they can lock down the league’s best offenses, but they showed they can at least slow them down enough for their own impressive offense to pull out victories. It was a nice step forward out of their recent mini-malaise, and the hope is that with rest now upon them, they’ll be able to continue sharpening. In that sense, Denver came at the right time.
Their own playoff hopes in the balance, the Nuggets squared up against a much-improved defensive approach from the Raptors and turned in a whirlwind of a shot-making display. Hitting 13-of-30 on threes is something the Nuggets, the league’s best offense since the All-Star break, just do. The Raptors made it tough, contesting 78 of their 89 field-goal attempts and 24 of their 30 threes on the night, all while keeping them largely off of the free-throw line. Denver managed 112.1 points per-100 possessions, a lot of them difficult.
“That’s a heckuva team,” Dwane Casey said. “Mike (Malone) has done a heckuva job with that team, they’re playing the analytical game to the ‘T.’ If they do shoot the mid-range shots, they try to back it up with a three, and they’ve got some great three-point shooters.”
The Raptors, meanwhile, continued to play to their new identity, hitting 13 threes of their own and dishing 33 assists to just nine turnovers. No player scored more than 15 points, seven scored in double-digits, and the team saw marked improvements from their bench, a major bounce-back game for Serge Ibaka, and a nice example of how their All-Stars can impact a game with their playmaking as much as they can with their scoring.
The game didn’t open as the exaggerated shootout “best two post-All-Star offenses” may have suggested. The Nuggets looked a little tired on the second night of a back-to-back, and while the Raptors’ defense was imperfect, Denver was unable to take full advantage. Ironically, the best source of offense the Nuggets had early was Paul Millsap, who hit a number of difficult shots against tough defense from Ibaka. Ibaka was a big deterrent otherwise, coming up with two huge blocks and a steal, helping lead a frisky group that saw Kyle Lowry turn away a couple of shots and DeMar DeRozan come up with a pair of steals. Those blocks and steals weren’t indicative of good defense across the board, but they certainly helped keep a loud team quiet.
Toronto’s offensive approach was more surgical than any sort of bludgeoning, marked by smart reads and extra passes. Jonas Valanciunas struggled to catch some difficult passes, and otherwise this was the type of offense the culture change envisioned – DeRozan not shooting for eight minutes and instead racking up assists, Lowry bombing three threes and making smart cuts to open things up further, OG Anunoby hitting a corner three and cutting baseline underneath actions, and the defense fueling the transition game. Were it not for turnover issues (something they completely erased the rest of the game) and a serious penchant for unfocused fouls, the Raptors may have been able to pull out to an early lead. As it was, it too a Delon Wright buzzer-beating bank-shot to exit the quarter up two.
“A balanced attack,” Fred VanVleet said. “Everybody’s involved, the ball’s moving. I think DeMar started off with four assists in the first three, four minutes. We all know how great of a scorer he is so that set the table for the rest of us. The bench came in and did what we did. The ball was kind of moving around. Their defense is a scrambling defense so we had to make the extra pass, the extra play, keep attacking.”
The second started as all great quarters do:
With both sides complaining about iffy foul calls. With both sides trading blows. Nikola Jokic and VanVleet headlined the back-and-forth, with a spicy undercard of a Jamal Murray and-one and a C.J. Miles drive for a one-handed dunk. Lucas Nogueira even made a cameo when Jakob Poeltl picked up his fourth foul in seven minutes (no, seriously), and VanVleet continued his Lowry impression by drawing a charge on Jokic that probably felt as pleasant as it sounds.
“I think I was a little overly aggressive,” Poeltl said. “On some of the closeouts I got caught. I got caught sliding over and they were running beside me. I got a lot of blocking calls. I think we stayed closer to our men in the second half. We realized that they were looking for the pocket than for their own shots so we stayed closer to our man.”
The Nuggets got the better of the bench-heavy stretch, and they continued to surge as Raptors starters filtered back in, going on a 10-0 run to go up eight before Pascal Siakam stopped the bleeding with an aggressive attack for an and-one.
Toronto’s offense picked up from there, with Valanciunas scoring three consecutive baskets around a block of Will Barton. They couldn’t pull much closer, though, as Denver’s outside shooting finally showed up. The Nuggets shot 67 percent and 5-of-8 on threes in the quarter, and unlike recent games, this wasn’t a case of the Raptors simply failing. The defense was solid, Denver just made some tough shots, and short of flipping the big-man assignments, there wasn’t much to do about it except stick to the plot and wait for them to cool off. That eventually started to happen, and the Norman Powell move at the end of the second, an understandable but usually ineffective staple given the tough situation it puts Powell in, worked out – Powell hit a three, Ibaka went to work inside, and the Raptors closed on an 11-4 run to enter the break tied at 58.
Casey flipped the frontcourt assignments to start the third, though it was Wilson Chandler getting it going early. Jokic found Millsap for a pair of buckets, too, and outside of a nice Anunoby cut, the Raptors were slow to generate much offense as they tried to keep their bigs engaged. Ibaka remained incredibly active on defense and Anunoby getting his hands on a few balls to cause disruption, but the Millsap-Valanciunas part of the dice-roll didn’t work in Toronto’s favor (outside of some solid rim protection), with Millsap scoring 12 in the quarter. Ibaka did his best to answer, scoring seven in the quarter himself and continuing to swat away everything inside, while Valanciunas eventually got the hook.
“Our bigs have to do a better job, Jonas and Lucas and Jakob have to do a better job of chasing those big guys that can shoot,” Casey said. “We’ve got a lot of them in the Eastern Conference, so their footwork is going to have to get better. They have been but they’ve taken a step back and that’s all it is, not taking negative steps in pick and roll situations.”
Three starters played the bulk of the quarter, with Miles and Nogueira joining them to provide a bit of a spark. Nogueira quickly joined the rim-protection party – the Raptors had 15 blocks through three quarters – Lowry and DeRozan connected on their pet alley-oop, and when more of the bench checked in, DeRozan immediately found Siakam for an emphatic transition dunk. Denver pushed back at the end of the quarter, and an ill-fated two-for-one attempt saw the Raptors enter the fourth down three despite the decent response.
The bench was in tough to try to make up the difference, as the Nuggets rolled with both Murray and Jokic at the top of the quarter. Jokic hit a pair of tough floaters and threw a ridiculous pass to Trey Lyles in the corner, but the Raptors were able to answer with another Siakam dunk and Miles finally getting on the board from outside. VanVleet did his best to get into Murray, too, and after a pair of forced late-clock turnovers, Siakam put the Raptors ahead. VanVleet then cooked Jokic on a switch, Siakam dumped one off to Poeltl, Wright hit a three after an offensive rebound, VanVleet hit a corner three through contact, and Mike Malone was done leaving the team’s playoff hopes to chance.
“They had a great bounce back,” Casey said. “The intensity they played with, it was a playoff atmosphere, a playoff game for both of us and I just liked the way they came in, especially in the second half. I thought they came in and really set the tone on how we were going to play in the fourth quarter.”
Malone opted for his full starting unit down seven with five minutes to go, while Casey trusted a Lowry-and-bench group. Poeltl turned away Chandler, VanVleet cut the lane and thew a ridiculous pass to Siakam that ended in a Poeltl tip-in, and after Murray hit a three literally from Kitchener, Poeltl threw down a ridiculous dunk on Millsap. The Raptors stuck with that group to close as a result – much more a statement on their quality play than an indictment on a great night from Ibaka and a solid offensive showing from DeRozan and Valanciunas – and while the Nuggets showed signs of a last-ditch counterpunch, Poeltl closing out a terrific quarter on offense (12 points in the frame) helped evade it. A final sprinkling of Denver shot-making – Murray, Chandler, and Jokic all hit desperation threes in the final minute – required the free-throw game to close out, providing one last burst of late-game anxiety for good measure, one the Raptors suvived.
“They made some tough shots,” Casey said. “I’ll have to go back and look at the film but I thought our defensive intensity was in the right position, we got down in a stance. We were worried about cutting and back cuts, they didn’t get those. In transition they didn’t get any easy threes on us, they made one in the first half but the things we talked about, focus and energy, intensity and sense of urgency I thought were there. Shots they made were tough shots and you kinda have to shake their hands and get on to the next play.”
And get on to the next game. The Raptors turned in a good one, with a step forward in their defensive process, if not results, and an effective and egalitarian offensive approach. They are not a finished product, and there are still areas to work on. For the first time in a month, they now have an extended period to do so, with three days before their next game and some much needed rest and practice time to continue to fine-tune the defense. More tests are coming, which should be welcome.