A frightful but unsurprising fourth quarter dooms the Raptors against the Nuggets

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Photo Source: Raptors.com

We’ve got a variety of good and fun ways to digest last night’s game. First up, Jamar Hinds is quickest with the quick reaction. Plus, Samson Folk continued his long run as the best podcaster alive.

And Zarar Siddiqi joined Oren Weisfeld on the spectacular Rap Up.

If you need proof  — and you shouldn’t, at this point — that this season is something new for the Toronto Raptors, look no further than the fact that the Raptors, who were a strong closing squad in past seasons, conceded a 31-11 run by the Denver Nuggets in the fourth quarter before managing few meaningless baskets in garbage time to close the gap.

It was three good quarters for Toronto, and the poor finish was overshadowed by individual performances.

First and foremost, OG Anunoby continues his ascension through Toronto’s hierarchy. He set a career high with 21 shots attempted and has now scored 20 points or more in six straight games. The Raptors are intentionally funneling more and more offense to Anunoby, as his shots are coming increasingly from self-created possessions, rather than from him standing in the corner waiting for someone to draw the defense and kick to him. The process is continuing a trend towards more Anunoby on the offense end.

“We do want to get him reps and we’re seeing him grow his game a little bit,” said Nick Nurse after the game.

“He’s got a chance to be special,” said Kyle Lowry of Anunoby, recounting that Anunoby wanted to be an All-Star after his rookie year. The rise has been a long time coming.

One con, however, of Anunoby’s process has been a decrease in touches for Pascal Siakam. Anunoby may be on the come up, but he still has a long way to go to surpass Siakam as the team’s primary scorer and creator from the wing position. Siakam has much a much cleaner handle and tighter footwork, which lends itself to creating one’s own shot. And Siakam seemed disinterested against the Nuggets, as he finished with 11 shots in 32 minutes. He faded to the background for much of the game, but it’s in the service of Anunoby’s growth, so it’s nothing to be upset about. He’s had a very strong April, by and large. The goal is to have the two of them dominating defenses together, and there is work that has to be done to reach that point. This game was a step towards that endpoint.

Malachi Flynn remained a delight. He hit step-up jumpers, forced rotations from the defense when he waltzed into the lane, and caused havoc on defense.

Khem Birch continued to offer superstar-level impact, as he finished a plus-eight in the plus-minus column in a 10-point loss. That’s nothing new for him. He defended anyone and everyone on the Nuggets, collected blocks and steals, walled off the rim, and was one of Toronto’s most consistent offensive players as well, hitting 8 of his 10 shots en route to a career-high 20 points. He is fantastic at cutting to open space when his teammates have the ball, and he even stroked a triple from the corner for good measure. It’s not hyperbolic to say that he was Toronto’s best performer in this one.

At the same time, Lowry would have a claim to the throne there. He was sharp, jetting into the lane and forcing rotations before he reversed for a layup, pivoted for a fadeaway jumper from the free throw line, or stepped back for a triple. The Raptors may be losing, but he’s certainly still got it.

Such positivity begs the question: how’d the Raptors lose a game to the Nuggets if everyone seemed to play so well? This one, unfortunately, must rest at least partially on Nurse’s shoulders. To start the second quarter, Nurse sent Anunoby onto the floor alongside Malachi Flynn, DeAndre’ Bembry, Yuta Watanabe, and Freddie Gillespie. The case could be made that it served to force-feed Anunoby offensive reps. But to start the fourth quarter, Nurse used the same group but with Stanley Johnson in Anunoby’s place and Rodney Hood in Watanabe’s. The lineup predictably got shelled, as they couldn’t create anything even resembling good shots, and the Nuggets scored with laughable ease the other way.

They didn’t come close,” said Nurse of the fourth-quarter group. “It…turned the tide of the game, got [the Nuggets] feeling pretty good, and they didn’t stop from there. Yep. It was not a good lineup. They didn’t get any stops and they didn’t get any scores.

I told them they’re gonna need to play hard and not give up any second shots. And in the first possession, they gave up a second-shot putback. You can’t turn it over. You’ve got to get shots. We turned it over once or twice, too.”

It’s possible Nurse expected the all-bench group to tread water, but they didn’t have any offensive firepower, and scoring is the best way to set your defense and stop the other guys. Then when Nurse returned the starters to the floor, it was with Johnson notably playing instead of the dominant Birch. If Nurse’s choices were made with a certain future draft pick in mind, don’t get your hopes up: there’s not much that can be done to support the tank at this point in the season.

Ultimately, even if Nurse tried to tactically throw in the towel with his lineup decisions, it doesn’t change the outlook of the season. I predicted weeks ago that the Raptors would be unable to tank. That’s exactly what’s happened, and even stealing wins over teams like the Brooklyn Nets and San Antonio Spurs in recent weeks hasn’t shifted Toronto’s lottery position in any real way. The Raptors currently have the eighth-worst record in the league, but they’re 4.5 games away from sixth; an extra win or loss in the grand picture wouldn’t have changed anything. They can’t win the race to the bottom. That’s what I meant when I said tanking was impossible. Just as with winning, other teams are doing losing better than the Raptors this season, too.

That doesn’t diminish the individual moments of good from recent games. Appreciate Anunoby. Appreciate Flynn. Appreciate Birch. Throw out the rest. Next season still looks bright.

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