Poor Shot-Making and Incredible Effort – Raptors First Feel Good Loss

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The 4th and final game of the vaunted west coast road trip. A tough game regardless of bad luck or injuries, against the Western Conference’s one-seed, to boot. One more thing, the Raptors were missing Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jonas Valanciunas and Norman Powell. There are no excuses in this league – none that carry weight anyway – and the Nuggets were also missing a slew of players. Gary Harris and the like didn’t suit up in the Mile High City, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the Raptors were up against it.

This game was defined by runs. Runs that spanned across quarters, huge personal runs, every type of run you can think of save for Pascal Siakam’s rim-runs. Coming into this game, Nick Nurse acknowledged that the Raptors might have to get funky in this one. Losing Valanciunas and playing the massive Nuggets front-court is far from ideal.

Per Eric Koreen: 

“I’m gonna be doing a bunch of maneuvering. (Malone) may just put the hammer down and put his foot on the glass a bit and go. I think this will take us different places tonight. I can’t see us being out there with a second unit tonight. I think it’s gonna have to be a lot of subbing, re-subbing to try to keep some of the starters on the floor at all times. I’d expect us to try just about anything defensively tonight.” – Nick Nurse

The Raptors early work on Nikola Jokic was downright remarkable. Jokic didn’t score on Ibaka at all in the first quarter, as Ibaka pushed him off his spot repeatedly. When Jokic came rumbling into the paint to get after offensive rebounds Ibaka took a good bunch of wacks and the guards and Leonard came down to gang-rebound. The whole team was pitching in early, and even though I saw an annoying amount of volleyball taps, the Raptors came away with the lionshare of boards in the first half. This was largely on the back of Ibaka making initial contact anytime he met Jokic. Not to mention Ibaka did a terrific job of shading towards Jokic when Leonard was being posted up by him.

As the Nuggets were determined to run the offense through Jokic (naturally) the defense that the Raptors played on him was instrumental in the success of the first half. Holding the Nuggets to 39 points, but even better, they held Jokic to 4-10 shooting and 2 assists. The Raptors stalled out the Nuggets half-court offense with impeccably timed doubles on the ball and a terrific point of attack – Delon Wright.

As Nick Nurse alluded to before the game, Mike Malone might choose to put the hammer down. The Raptors didn’t allow the Nuggets the opportunity. This was largely on the back of Ibaka and Leonard who were sublime, but the Raptors whole team was active and engaged on the defensive glass. Winning the battle on the glass by 9 boards (28-19) in the first half was massive, and if any positives are to be taken from this game, this first half performance on defense and the boards was absolutely exemplary.

The second half was just as gritty, except the real ballers started to move the needle. Leonard and Jokic both overhauled their respective teams offense and tried to will them to victory. Leonard poured in 19 second half points and Jokic kept the Nuggets within striking distance until their bench could slam the Raptors reserves. For all of the incredible defense the Raptors played last night, their isn’t an answer to this type of shot-making:

Believe it or not, the Raptors second half wasn’t about a collapsing defense, or loss of composure. The Raptors were scoreless for 6 minutes and 20 seconds. Spanning parts of the 3rd and 4th quarter, and meanwhile giving up an 18-0 run. The 18 points that were scored weren’t even particularly egregious. It was the absolute void of offense that took up an eighth of the games run time.

While their has been questions about Leonard’s playmaking this year, and for good reason, he seemed quite reluctant to pass early on in the year. He was a stud tonight, and had he been surrounded by any type of shooters, the Raptors would have walked away with this win and Leonard would have had a feather in his cap. His teammates didn’t convert on the wonderful opportunities he laid out for them. Thus, the creation burden become that much heavier.

The Nuggets were incredibly physical with Leonard all night, his usage percentage was over 32-percent on the game, and he only took 4 free throws. I am not a fan of blaming the refs, but Nurse took a fine after the game for his comments, so I think this requires attention. Leonard is an incredibly physical player for his own part, but it’s not often I see him bowl into the paint out of control, and he certainly doesn’t push-off more than other star players. Last night’s game was full of the Nuggets hand-checking him, sometimes with both hands, and he was “seat-belted” numerous times when breaking through the first-line of defense. The Raptors didn’t lose this game because of the refs, they needed to make shots. That being said, I would like to see Leonard rewarded more often for taking the physical punishment he does. Nurse felt similar, per Josh Lewenberg:

“I do not understand why they are letting everybody play one of the best players in the league so physically. I do not understand it.” – Nick Nurse

Of course, the game really does come down to the 3-point shooting. The players everyone noticed were OG Anunoby and CJ Miles. As far as Miles goes, I have no explanation. His shot preparation has always been good, and the only gripe there could possibly be is that sometimes he pushes his range a bit far. He’s shooting bad, and I hope it comes back around. Otherwise, he can’t have a role on this team, and I would love a trade to bring Terrence Ross back into the fold.

As far as Anunoby goes, we’re only one month removed from this text conversation coming to light:

Anunoby: “Hey coach, how do I get on the floor in the fourth quarter?”

Nurse: “You need to defend and make shots.”

Anunoby: “I already do that.”

When this quote came out, we all took it in stride because Anunoby was that player. His sublime performance over the course of his rookie year was soft-core porn for all of us. Even though he’s had an up-and-down sophomore year, that doesn’t mean we don’t rate him properly. Obviously we do overrate him, he’s our large adult son, but there is a lot to like from Anunoby’s game. It’s also fair to say that a weak-side attacker like Anunoby has a simpler role next to a player like DeMar DeRozan. Leonard is far superior to DeRozan as a player, but there is something to be said about Anunoby’s role this year and last. He’s had to expand a lot of his game in a short amount of time – we’re witnessing the stumbling blocks.

At the start of this year, I wrote about how Anunoby’s jumper looked smoother. His release was higher, his pick-up point was higher, there was progression. He’s not this player and he’s not a future Kawhi Leonard, but he is absolutely going to be something that is better than this. His 1-7 performance from downtown in the second half was crippling. It’s most likely the reason the Raptors lost, as his 3-point shots were wide-open. When the offense creates those looks in a game this tight and low scoring, that’s backbreaking. However, hope springs eternal and Anunoby is as much a young starlet as he was a month ago. He’s got time to grow, and we’ll watch his progression with eager eyes.

Outside of the Raptors offensive struggles, Jamal Murray shook loose a few too many times. His 15-point fourth quarte looms large in the outcome of this game. After watching Jokic absorb so much attention, Murray made good on the space that he was afforded. He was 6-8 from the floor and displayed some fantastic shot-making. He outscored the Raptors by himself in the final frame.

All things considered, I’m not at all mad at this loss. Considering what the Raptors were missing and how they played, I have no qualms. Leonard was an absolute stud, some young guys took some lumps and will hopefully grow. Delon Wright was really solid, displaying some of his unique “amoebic” play. Some veterans might’ve made their need to be supplanted all the more evident. More than anything, the Raptors played hard, and as a fan, that’s a lot. Especially when we know that their ceiling is much higher anyway.

For me, this was the first “feel good” loss of the year. I feel as good about the team as ever as they return to the cozy confines of Scotiabank Arena. 23-9, first in the NBA.

One last thing for all of us to laugh/get mad at. I read a profound statement a few months back: “Think of anytime you read something in the media that you knew a lot about. Something you knew very intimately. Now concentrate on how many little things the person reporting got wrong.” Of course this doesn’t apply to anyone we like – we’re all too smart for that, surely.

Sam Amick had an absolute hum-dinger of a tweet as far as peddling narrative goes. Enjoy.

Kyle Lowry is still undefeated in the “Mike Lowry” era.

Have a blessed day.


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