Post-Game

Short-handed Nuggets bully past Raptors in statement win

Jonas Valanciunas had another tough night but stuck with it and improved towards the end.

(Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

If the NBA was ever intent on making a statement on how adamant they are about the freedom of movement rules being enforced this year, they chose a heck of a time to do it.

With the top team from the East playing the top team in the West, and the game tied at 103 with seven seconds to play, the officials called Serge Ibaka for a foul prior to the Denver Nuggets inbounding the ball. The penalty for such a foul is a free-throw and the ball, changing the dynamic of the closing seconds entirely. No longer were the Nuggets trying to run a game-winning play, but rather, cling to an advantage handed to them. The Toronto Raptors were forced to foul, conceded a three-point lead, and then, without a timeout available, could only hurry down the court and hope as Kyle Lowry used a screen to create some separation and fire up an attempt that was too strong.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, already incensed by a previous call, seemed a bit resigned by what happened at the end, or, perhaps, just trying to save his money.

“I’m going to have to look at it again,” he said after the game. “I asked him, he said he had to call it. I don’t know, guys coming off a screen, I’ve got to look at it, I haven’t seen it yet.”

What the reigning Eastern Conference Coach of the Month won’t need another look at to realize is the lack of intensity his team came out to play with in the opening half. There were careless turnovers, poor closing out of defensive possessions that allowed far too many offensive rebounds — the Nuggets finished with 23 second-chance points to the Raptors’ 2 — and just an overall lack of urgency.

“We didn’t lose that game at the end of the game,” Danny Green said after the game. “I just think our approach from the beginning of the first half, for sure, we let a couple of guys get away from us that we shouldn’t have, but it’s hard to win when you turn it over 18 times and shoot, what? 27 from three? It’s tough to win, especially with a team like that … We’ve got to do better locking in from start to finish.”

The Raptors had a particularly ugly stretch between the end of the first quarter and early second quarter, when OG Anunoby picked up three rapid fouls and was forced out of the game, Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t hold a candle to Nikola Jokic (who was magnificent with a 23-point, 11 rebound, 15 assist triple-double), before struggling against Mason Plumlee’s high-octane game as well. The Raptors as a whole committed bad fouls, turned the ball over and gave up far too many easy baskets in transition to the point where it forced Green to call them into a huddle.

“Yeah, I just thought we were rushing,” Green said when asked about the impromptu huddle. “I said we weren’t rebounding well, we were turning the ball over way too many times to give them easy baskets. It seemed like we had open looks all over the place, we just need to take our time and settle and not turn it over, make the easy play and get back on defense and talk.”

It didn’t change much in the moment (although they did help spark the fourth quarter comeback on the back of some quality Delon Wright minutes). The Raptors finished the half trailing by 12, perfectly encapsulated by a Jamal Murray dunk off a Kawhi Leonard turnover.

Sure, this game didn’t have the glamour of the champion Golden State Warriors coming to town or the hoopla of a potential Finals preview, but, for the moment, these are the two top teams in their respective conferences and an opponent that has played the Raptors really tough the last couple of years.

While three-point shooting and turnovers are two aspects of the game you expect to go the Raptors’ way more often than not, the defensive rebounding continues to be a problem. Toronto is 26th in defensive rebounding rate after dropping to 20-5 on the season. I’ll have a piece coming for The Athletic specifically focusing on this issue so won’t go into it too deeply here.

“A huge advantage on the glass for us, give our guys a lot of credit on the offensive glass,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said after the game. “Nikola gets four, Mason (Plumlee) off the bench gets three and Torrey (Craig) gets three. Plus-21 advantage second-chance points is really, really big on the road, we took advantage of that, that’s something the last five games, that’s one of the few areas that team has struggled in, the defensive rebounding, and we were able to exploit that to get the win.”

What is possibly encouraging for the Raptors is that when they do make it a point of emphasis, they are able to get their act together and shore up the issues. 17 of Denver’s 23 second-chance points came in the first half, and that issue was exacerbated by the Raptors shooting just 3-for-22 from beyond the arc.

Returning from a one game absence, Kyle Lowry missed all three of his shots in the first half, three 3-pointers. As he continues to rack up the assists, more teams will play him for the pass, and so if he doesn’t maintain a decent level of focus on creating his own scoring opportunities, it could dilute both threats. He finished 1-for-7 for the game, and his potentially game-tying three-point attempt was the only shot he attempted in the fourth quarter. It may have stood out even more matched up against Kitchener, Ont., native Jamal Murray, who’s never met a shot he didn’t like and finished with 21 points on 21 shots, seven rebounds, eight assists and seven turnovers.

“I think, overall, we did a great job on him,” Malone said after the game. “Kyle Lowry, all-star point guard, gets five points, obviously he leads the league in assists, he gets 11 of those. You know when the game’s on the line he’s more than willing and capable of making big plays. Our guards did a really good job of guarding him, our bigs gave good support of guarding him, but, they come at you in waves, man. They made a hell of a run and had us on our heels but thank goodness we were able to answer back and get the win.”

Lowry’s playmaking undoubtedly continues to sizzle, but in today’s game, the threat of three-point shooting is vital to a team’s spacing. When the team’s best shooter doesn’t make it a priority, there’s every chance the desire to look for others does more harm than good.

In fact, one player whose playmaking is clearly benefiting from the increased threat of his scoring prowess is Pascal Siakam. His spin move continues to leave opponents chasing shadows, and his latest victim was none other than all-star forward and Western Conference Player of the Week Paul Millsap.

The above dandy of a spin may be the best one he’s had yet and even had Fred VanVleet mimicking the move from the bench. He gave Millsap some of his more traditional treatment as well, simply outrunning him down the floor for terrific inside position and the score.

Then, he showed Millsap what he can do off the bounce, collecting a pass from Ibaka at the three-point line and taking a couple of hard dribbles to his left before unleashing the shadow chaser once again.

“Pretty good, pretty good,” Nurse said when asked for his assessment of how Siakam fared matched up against Millsap. “He worked on him, Millsap’s obviously an all-star caliber player with an in-and-out game, really good in, a little bit wider body sometimes for Pascal to handle.”

All three plays happened in the span of a minute in the first quarter, and it’s that type of dominant scoring that can really set a defender back on their heels and force them to focus all their energy on avoiding that fate again. Siakam collected six more assists after that scoring run for a career-high total, including a couple of key passes late in the fourth quarter that helped keep the Raptors in the game.

In this play below, Jokic is hedging over, Millsap’s got his head turned away from Lowry, and Juancho Hernangomez (who made some key shots both early and at the end) cheats off Leonard which eventually allows for the Eastern Conference Player of the Week to take advantage of the Spaniard being on his heels on the recovery.

This is the type of play that highlights just how far Siakam has come as both a scorer and a playmaker in this league, his intent to finish pulls defenders in and allows for the passing lane that creates an advantage. That he went up against a player who Raptors fans and media alike have yearned for in years past and more than held his own speaks volumes of the player he’s become, helping limit Millsap to six points on nine shots.

While the fourth quarter saw some solid contributions from the bench and Siakam, it was Leonard who was asked to carry the load in crunch time and failed miserably for a stretch before coming up with two big-time shots in the final minute. Before that, he had a stretch with two missed shots and two turnovers that the Nuggets failed to take advantage of. It was one of the few things they didn’t. Denver will be thrilled to come away with a win in a tough building to play in and considering the fact that Gary Harris was forced to leave with what appeared to be a groin injury, and Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas remain out.

Nurse will have plenty to harp on with his team leading into their matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, but it will frustrate him to no end that it’s the same issues that keep popping back up again. 25 down, 57 to go.

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