Two — Collapse: The second unit completely dropped the ball to start the fourth quarter. Nick Nurse tried to buy some rest for his starters but it completely backfired, and even though the starters did return early, the damage was already done as the Nuggets were rolling. It wasn’t completely surprising since the bench unit struggled in the first half as well, but the bottom just completely fell out. Nurse’s instruction to begin the quarter was to prevent second-chance basket above all else, and on the very first play, Paul Millsap collected an offensive rebound and got himself to the line.
The run is over. The loss guaranteed the Raptors will finish below .500 for the first time since 2012-13. That was Kyle Lowry’s first year with the Raptors and Bryan Colangelo’s last. This being the Eastern Conference, the Raptors are not officially out of it yet, but the odds are getting long. Depending on the predictive model, the Raptors had between a 6 percent and 11 percent chance of making the play-in tournament before the loss in Denver. Games against the Jazz, Lakers and Clippers remain in this brutal Western Conference trip. Only owning the tiebreaker over Washington and the Bulls’ own daunting schedule keep them spiritually alive, and not just mathematically alive. Neither is likely to last too much longer.
It was fitting that the Raptors were done in by a few familiar themes that have been issues for most of the season. They had mostly righted their rebounding problems since the arrivals of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, but they were doubled up on the offensive glass, 14-7.
Without Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher and Gary Trent Jr., the Raptors lineup also felt very thin. Their depth has been an issue throughout the year, largely at centre but also in general, particularly when COVID-19 hit the club midseason, ending its best stretch of basketball for the year. Without three rotation players, and the only two proven scorers off the bench, the reserves fell flat. Nurse did not help things, keeping the club’s three longest-tenured available players and best offensive players, Lowry, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, on the sideline to start the fourth quarter. The Nuggets went a 9-0 run over four trips down the court both ways, and that was that.
“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,” Nurse said. “You can’t turn it over. You’ve got to get shots. We turned it over once or twice, too. We did have a wide-open corner 3 that would have probably got us by there for another couple minutes or two. I probably should have pulled the plug a little earlier than that. I waited probably one possession (too long).”
It was good to see Nurse take some responsibility. In reality, he did not need to put that group out there at all. Nurse has made some odd lineup choices this season, another thing to reflect on during the offseason. Those decisions aren’t the main reason the Raptors have struggled, but everybody has to own part of this failure, despite all of the external turmoil that has contributed to it.
“You know we’ve had a great stretch of basketball since I’ve been here,” Lowry said. “I guess this would be my second time in nine years having a below-.500 record. I wish it never happened, but at this point, in this stage, we can’t do anything about it. It’s unfortunate, this year, having COVID and all that stuff. It’s been different. We just got to continue. You appreciate the consistency that you had for a certain amount of years, but it’s kind of a reset now.”
Toronto put in another respectable effort but, as has been the case all too often this season, they didn’t quite have the horse power to get back on course once the drift set in.
Toronto led by two after the first quarter, trailed by five at half and were only down 87-85 to start the fourth quarter.
And then the Raptors stopped scoring, their offensive droughts as much a story of their season as playing in Tampa or dealing with COVID.
Denver kicked off the final quarter on a 15-0 run and had pushed their lead to 21 after 4:53 of the fourth and that was it as Toronto fell 121-111.
Part of that was on Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who tried to buy his starters some extra minutes by going with an all-bench unit featuring Malachi Flynn, Freddie Gillespie, Rodney Hood, DeAndre Bembry and Yuta Watanabe.
It was not a successful experiment and Nurse owned it.
“It turned the tide of the game, got [Denver] 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,” said Nurse, who called a timeout when the run got to 9-0. “… I probably should have pulled the plug a little earlier than that. I waited probably one possession [too long].”
The loss dropped Toronto to 26-37, kicking off a brutal four-game road trip that sees them visit the West-leading Utah Jazz Saturday, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers Sunday and the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday.
They are now 12th place in the East with nine games left to make up 2.5 games on the 10th place Washington Wizards for the final spot in the play-in tournament.
The Nuggets are 42-21 and a half-game behind the Clippers for the third seed in the West.
So in that context, Anunoby’s recent play has been a silver lining for Toronto.
Ryan Blackburn breaks down the Denver Nuggets 121-111 win, led by incredible bench defense and cohesiveness at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green were great, Austin Rivers and PJ Dozier were both pests, and Michael Porter Jr. tied the unit together with blocks and timely buckets. Ryan breaks down a night where Nikola Jokić was disrupted but still good, where Facu did Facu things, and how the Nuggets may have changed their playoff fate.
The bench, though. We have to talk about the bench. Scoring just 19 points as a unit (led by six from Stanley Johnson), they were easily out-performed by 48 points from a talented, deep Nuggets second unit. There are opportunities for criticism, but it is as simple as a talent discrepancy. With injuries and the roster as built, the drop-off from the starters to the bench is incredibly steep. Rodney Hood minutes feel like throwing out a warm body, while players like DeAndre’ Bembry and Yuta Watanabe haven’t been able to adapt to changing roles throughout the season.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets were able to get solid performances from JaMychael Green (15 points) and newly signed Austin Rivers (11 points). Shaq Harrison was a speed demon, while Paul Millsap rudely took time out of his day to exploit any rotation mistake made by Freddie Gillespie.
Of their starters, the Nuggets were led by Michael Porter Jr., who scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Nikola Jokic had 19 points (8-for-13), 11 boards, and seven assists. The Raptors starters did a pretty good job there, with Siakam and Anunoby seeing the most time on the MVP favourite.
Every Raptors game involves a gamble of some sort: a chance taken, a hope given that it all comes together somehow, some way.
Some nights it works out great and someone comes out of nowhere to have a big game, or an unlikely group keeps the team in touch.
And some nights it turns as ugly as it did on Thursday.
It’s just been a matter of fact this season. For every game that someone rises to the occasion, there have been one or two when no one does, to predictable results.
The gamble Thursday came at the start of the fourth quarter, when what was in reality an entire fivesome of backups let a game slip away with about four minutes of truly dreadful play.
“It was not a good lineup,” coach Nick Nurse said of the group that precipitated Toronto’s demise in a 121-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
The Raptors trailed by two when the fourth quarter began and they ran out a group of Malachi Flynn, DeAndre’ Bembry, Rodney Hood, Yuta Watanabe and Freddie Gillespie, all primarily backups even if Flynn did start for the resting Fred VanVleet.
The Nuggets proceeded to go on a 9-0 run in about 2 1/2 minutes before the Raptors called a timeout to get Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam back in the game. That hardly solved things as Denver scored six straight, and Lowry’s three came after more than four scoreless minutes by the Raptors.
The rest of the game was a mere formality.
“(It) turned the tide of the game, got them feeling pretty good, and they didn’t stop from there,” Nurse said.
Toronto’s starters all contributed, led by streaking OG Anunoby’s 25 and a career-high 20 from Khem Birch and 20 more from Kyle Lowry, but the bench provided next to nothing and Anunoby and Pascal Siakam faded in the second half with only eight combined points. To make matters worse, Denver’s 9-0 run to start the fourth quarter was against four reserves and fill-in rookie starter Malachi Flynn. Head coach Nick Nurse tried to buy some rest for the first group in the tough Denver altitude, but it didn’t work.
“They didn’t come close,” Nurse said of the group after the game. “Turned the tide of the game, got them 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.”
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
MVP favourite Nikola Jokic had a quiet night (by his standards), but still managed 19 points and 11 rebounds, though just two assists. Michael Porter Jr. scored 23 and the Nuggets bench outscored Toronto’s 48-19.
“I told (the Raptors bench) 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 put-back,” Nurse said.
“You can’t turn it over. You’ve got to get shots. We turned it over once or twice, too. We did have a wide-open corner 3 that would have probably got us by there for another couple minutes or two. I probably should have pulled the plug a little earlier than that. I waited probably one possession (too long).”
Anunoby admitted afterward that dropping another close game that could have gone whe other way was tough.
“We want to win every game and we were right there,” Anunoby said.
“We stopped hitting shots, and we could easily have made all those shots and they could easily have missed all their shots.A Just how it goes sometimes,” he said.
Despite losing Canadian superstar Jamal Murray for the season and playing a night earlier, unlike the rested Raptors, Denver has not slowed down at all and has now won eight of nine. Meanwhile, Toronto’s hopes of making the play-in round are fading, with a back-to-back against Utah and the Lakers looming as this four-game trip West continues.
Perhaps Flynn’s most obvious improvement has been in his late-game play. He’s been far more comfortable and assertive in fourth quarters of late, and it’s earned praise from his coaches and more responsibility.
In the fourth quarter of the five games preceding Toronto’s outing in Denver on Thursday, he averaged nearly nine minutes, shooting 40 per cent from three-point range and 43.8 per cent from the field while dishing out two assists per game with less than one turnover.
“The third and fourth quarters, it’s time to win,” he said this week. “You forget about everything else, and really it comes down to making winning plays — whether it’s the defensive end, getting an assist, scoring. I think you’re just trying to come out with the win.”
Flynn is certainly not going to supplant either Fred VanVleet or Kyle Lowry late in close games this season if both the Raptors veterans are healthy and available. The rookie may eat a few fourth-quarter minutes, but closing time is the domain of the two NBA champions he’s behind on the depth chart. But Flynn’s emergence has hit home in a couple of significant ways.
The way he’s playing might make it easier to give VanVleet or Lowry a night off for rest without a huge drop-off in production. And depending on how the last 11 games of the season play out, there may be a handful where Lowry and VanVleet are watching rather than playing.
The second point has greater far-reaching implications: If Flynn continues on this development path — and there’s no reason to think he won’t — Lowry’s future with the team becomes even more cloudy.
If the Raptors feel Flynn will be fully capable of taking a full-time backup role behind VanVleet next season, finding a new home for the free-agent Lowry might be more likely than not. It would be nothing against Lowry, who has given the Raptors more than enough over a great nine-year career, but a smooth transition to a VanVleet-Flynn point-guard tandem might make the most sense.