Morning Coffee – Wed, Mar 15

VanVleet balling | OG Smiles | Raptors hand the Nuggets 4th loss in a row

Raptors need more of the joy and fight they showed against Nuggets – The Athletic

For Siakam and the Raptors, it was something. After Scottie Barnes’ and Fred VanVleet’s referee-related controversies, the Raptors let go of the rope to end their trip Friday against the Lakers. This was a team that appeared to not only be falling apart but also to have fallen apart. Were they going to fight for each other? And if not, what does that say about their coach Nick Nurse — not that he is the person solely responsible for bringing that quality out of them. What does that say about this group of players?

That is basically the referendum for the rest of this year: Do these Raptors care enough to fight for each other? After they beat the Nuggets 125-110, at least we can answer “maybe” definitively, which is better than the alternative, apologies to those monitoring the reverse standings.

The asterisk, of course, is that these are the Nuggets, who have a pretty comfortable grip on the top seed in the Western Conference and have lost four games in a row after their narrow win over the Raptors last week. Before the game, Nuggets coach Mike Malone plainly stated improving defensively was the only thing that mattered to his team right now, and they went out and allowed one of the worst-shooting teams in the league to score 49 points in the first quarter. On paper, this goes down as one of the best wins of the Raptors’ season, but it doesn’t carry the emotional heft it might have in Colorado.

Nonetheless, the Raptors don’t help each other enough on the defensive end or move the ball enough offensively. They are a team whose vibes are way off. The roster surely has stylistic shortcomings, but the overall talent is high enough that they should have been able to avoid more calamities than they have.

Maybe a win over the struggling Nuggets can allow them to find that spark. (Consider this the 21st or so hopeful/skeptical statement of the year.) Their 49-point first quarter wasn’t only efficient, but it was also pretty. Barnes was throwing no-look passes. VanVleet had the ball on a string, putting on dribbling exhibitions. Chris Boucher finished alley-oop passes with a bit of extra oomph.

Even the one guy whose whole bit is showing as little emotion and flash as possible joined in on the party.

“I think I smiled,” O.G. Anunoby said. “I hope I smiled.”

More encouragingly, there was fight, especially after a 24-point lead was cut to three. VanVleet stripped the ball from Bruce Brown and got Barnes a bucket in transition. Barnes was quick to the ball after a missed free throw from Siakam to get the Raptors another possession. Gary Trent Jr. jumped a passing lane for a pick six.

For a team that when “effort” and “energy” have been brought up as concerns by the coach, those moments count for something. The Raptors have an exploitable schedule coming up. Let’s see what they do with it.

“When you win, it’s a little bit easier to (deal with individual struggles),” VanVleet said when asked about Siakam, who has shot just 10 free throws in his last six games and hasn’t topped his season average of 24.4 points since Feb. 26. “When you’re winning consistently, it’s easier than when you’re losing. It’s tough. It kills your energy. You get down on yourself. P has been great for us and he has carried a lot this year. He’s certainly got to get his spirits up.”

With Anunoby shining on both ends, Raptors avenge last week’s loss to Nuggets – Sportsnet

All five Raptors starters were in double figures, but it was Fred VanVleet who provided the jet fuel as he exploded for 36 points on 13-of-22 shooting to go along with seven assists.

Anunoby scored seven points in the final eight minutes as he helped Toronto push back after Denver had pulled within three in a game Toronto led by 24 early in the third quarter, but it was a VanVleet triple – his eighth on the night in 12 attempts – over Jokic that put the game out of reach as Toronto led by 15 with 3:04 to play.

“It was a good day. Sometimes you just have a rhythm and an energy, and a flow and my body felt good,” said VanVleet.

“[The ball] wasn’t really touching the rim tonight, so you just try to find looks and try to keep getting open. I had a look down and make sure my feet were set and if I saw the rim, I was being aggressive. When they were up I made the right play and tried to keep the ball moving. We need these wins so whatever that means for our team, some nights it will be like this and other nights I will take nine shots and hopefully we can leave with a win.”

For Anunoby, the Jokic assignment was just the latest career-long project where he’s drawn the opposition’s best player and been expected to neutralize them. He’s done well against bigs like Jokic, Lakers’ Anthony Davis and even Embiid this season, but more than holds his own against smaller wings and guards.

“Well he’s a really good defender,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I don’t know if he gets talked about for defensive player of the year much but … I don’t know who else in the league guards that many positions. Like last week he went [DeMar] DeRozan, [Bradley] Beal, Beal [Toronto played the Washington Wizards twice in succession], Jokic, Davis. I mean that’s quite a variety of positions and talent and he did really well on all of them.”

The Raptors showed no ill effects of a difficult west coast trip where they dropped three straight games, beginning with a tight one in Denver that featured some controversial calls down the stretch and a last-minute ejection of Scottie Barnes.

Anunoby was excellent that night even though Jokic still mustered 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. That he only took eight shots and was held eight points below his season average was proof. Once again Jokic had a hard time generating offence early as Anunoby picked him up full court in transition and denied him the ball in the half court.

Jokic was limited to just two shots and created just two assists in the first quarter. Meanwhile Anunoby was at the forefront of one of the best quarters Toronto has every had as he scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting as Toronto jumped out to a 49-30 first-quarter lead while shooting a scorching 71.4 per cent from the floor and six-of-nine from three.

The first-quarter explosion broke the franchise record for points in an opening quarter set on Jan. 11, 1997. It was more fuel for the fire burning at the core of the Nuggets, who arrived in Toronto on a three-game losing streak having played the worst defence in the NBA over that stretch.

“I learned a long time ago, learn to understand why you win and why you lose,” said Malone, referring to his club’s defensive lapse.

Recap: Nuggets comeback falls short against Raptors – Denver Stiffs

The Denver Nuggets came into tonight’s game with the Toronto Raptors riding a three-game losing streak, and things quickly got out of hand. The Raptors were hitting shots early, and they were being chiefly led by Fred VanVleet, who hit four of his five three-point attempts in the first quarter. Meanwhile, the Nuggets had hit just one three in the first quarter and were trailing 30-49 heading into the second quarter.

In the second quarter, things weren’t getting better. The Nuggets’ deficit ballooned to as many as 23 points with Toronto dominating on the glass, and they were shooting an incredible 61 percent from the floor more than midway through the quarter. Denver wasn’t far behind at 58 percent, but they didn’t have the 3-point shooting to match them. Down the stretch of the first half, Denver couldn’t get shots to fall while getting stops, and they would be trailing 74-56 heading into the half.

After getting four quick points to start the second half, the Nuggets were quickly unraveling as they gave up a six-point run over a 45-second span while letting the referees take them out of their focus. Following that run, the Nuggets got a couple of buckets to fall, but they just couldn’t get stops. The Raptors continued their run, and their lead had grown to 24 with eight minutes to go in the quarter. The Nuggets turned things around midway through the quarter, and they got a run going to get them within 12 with just under four minutes remaining. Following a couple of points from the Raptors, the Nuggets’ run continued, and they had gotten to within five with some hot shooting and an improved effort on the defensive end. They were trailing 98-92 heading into the final period.

The Nuggets started the final quarter trading buckets back and forth, and they were within three with under 10 minutes remaining in the game. Denver was within six for a couple of minutes, but they couldn’t get any closer. Their deficit was 12 with just under seven minutes remaining. The Nuggets’ full starting lineup was back in the game, and they just couldn’t get anything going on either end of the floor. Toronto’s defensive intensity was too much for Denver, and their offense just couldn’t be stopped on the other end. Denver had a chance to get the deficit back to single digits, but Michael Porter Jr.’s shot didn’t fall. It looked like the dagger came when VanVleet hit his eighth 3-pointer of the night, and the game was punctuated with a Scottie Barnes dunk with just under two minutes remaining to stretch the deficit to 15. The game would end with the Nuggets losing 125-110 with their losing streak stretching to four games, which is their longest of the season.

Denver Nuggets lose 125-110 to Toronto Raptors, their fourth game in a row – Mile High Sports

Murray scored just 14 points on 5-of-18 from the field and 1-of-8 from three-point range. he did have nine assists, but they were cancelled out by five turnovers, some of which were egregious. His defense was also bad, despite notching two steals and a block.

The most alarming number wasn’t the poor shooting or turnovers though. It was the 40 minutes. Yes, Murray was playing in front of friends and family, but he was also questionable with left knee injury management before the game. Michael Malone shared pregame that Murray would be playing tonight even if he had to do so on one leg…which isn’t exactly an encouraging statement given his injury concerns.

It’s clear that Murray is laboring through pain right now, and the Nuggets have to find ways to rest him during the season. Giving him two-minute long rests between stints isn’t going to cut it. The Nuggets have to remove him from the bench rotation or sit him entirely. There’s just too much at stake to be entering the postseason with Murray hobbled. Rest him, cut down on the minutes, and get ready for the playoffs. There’s nothing left for him to prove in the regular season.

Michael Porter Jr. showed up in a big way

During the third quarter, the Nuggets were down by over 20 points on multiple occasions. Murray played better in the third, and Jokić found some gaps to exploit, but the big story was Porter. He shined brightly in that third, hitting both open and contested three-pointers to help cut the Raptors lead to just six points. He also found opportunities for drives, passes, and defensive plays, doing everything the Nuggets needed him to do in that stretch.

Porter only finished with 23 points, but he did so on 13 shots, hitting 5-of-9 from three-point range and giving the Nuggets an injection of life when they needed it most. Obviously, the Nuggets didn’t get it done, but Porter wasn’t the reason why. He gave the Nuggets a chance, and they just couldn’t capitalize.

This was an important performance for Porter. He played 33 minutes and played well, just two days after he was benched in the third quarter on Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets. The Nuggets needed Porter to be great, especially with Murray struggling, and he was in his limited shot attempts. At some point soon, the Nuggets are going to need to unleash Porter, give him some of Murray’s shot attempts if he can get them in the flow of the offense. There’s a chance he could put up some seriously crooked numbers with how he’s currently shooting the ball.

The Nuggets have lost focus too soon

With their fourth loss in a row, Nuggets fans are getting worried. They’re hoping for signs of a 1 seed to emerge, but the Nuggets appear to have lost focus a bit too early after getting an important win against the Memphis Grizzlies a couple weeks a

Recap: Toronto Raptors vs Denver Nuggets – Raptors HQ

A deeeeep three from VanVleet over Nikola Jokic with three minutes to go restored the 15-point lead and the Raptors cruised from there.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Raptors — and is the fourth loss in a row for the West-leading Nuggets.

VanVleet was the big show in this one, scoring 36 points and dropping 7 dimes; he also shot 8-for-12 from downtown. Scottie Barnes scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished 5 assists. O.G. Anunoby chipped in 24 points, and once again spent the night doing everything he could to slow down the reigning MVP.

Jokic still managed to score 28 points on 13 shots, and added 8 rebounds and 7 assists. Michael Porter Jr. added 23, shooting 5-of-8 from downtown. Jamal Murray, playing in Canada for the first time since 2018(!), scored just 14 points on 18 shots.

Credit for that must go to Barnes and VanVleet, who shared the assignment on Murray and were able to lock him down. Before the game, Nurse called Murray a “hard guard” (as in, he’s difficult to guard, not… whatever the hell you were thinking), saying he makes shots even when he’s totally covered. “You’re guarding the heck out of him, and he still makes it,” Nurse said. “Not a whole lot you can do.” Whether it was playing in front of family and friends, or his sore knee, or just facing the effort from Barnes and VanVleet, Murray and those ridiculous shots were kept in check in this one.

The response from the Raptors in the fourth, after seeing the lead dwindle the way it did, was impressive. But you’ll be shocked to hear that the game only settled down once all the starters returned (although Gary Trent Jr. did play a chunk of minutes with four other starters in the period). But every member of the Raptors reserves were on the negative side of the plus-minus tonight, “led” by Precious Achiuwa, who was a -13. All five starters were double-digit net positives.

Once VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl (12 points and 11 rebounds) returned in the fourth, running the show from the top of the key, the Raptors looked much more settled, and got back to moving the ball and getting everyone involved. Every Raptor who played, scored in the frame. And on the other end, Poeltl, despite the foul trouble, anchored the D and helped Trent, Anunoby and VanVleet play more aggressive on the perimeter.

Raptors ride record first quarter to win over Nuggets | The Star

“This time of the year, I think who we are as a group, we just need to keep being positive no matter what,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “A couple of tough losses is definitely a shot in the gut to your morale and your energy but I think, from practice to shootaround to locker rooms to plane rides or whatever, we just got to stay positive and keep pushing forward and I think that’s going to put ourselves in the best position.”

So is finishing games well. The Nuggets, once down 24 points, got within a basket of the lead in the fourth quarter but the Raptors pulled away again with some excellent execution down the stretch.

“We made some really good decisions at the end, some timely baskets, back-cut baskets, a couple finishes at the rim,” coach Nick Nurse said. “Made a couple threes at the end.

“The stretch where they closed it back down … I still thought we were running really good stuff and I thought we just went a little chilly on the offensive end for about a five-, six-minute stretch.”

VanVleet was wonderful, with 36 points — a franchise-best 10th game of 30-plus points in a season — and the way he calmed the game in its most tenuous moments was a testament to his leadership. As the Raptors were reeling near the end of the third quarter, he had a clean steal at midcourt and dished to Scottie Barnes, who finished a three-point play to quell a Denver run.

VanVleet sat out the first four minutes of the fourth quarter as the lead waved between three and five points and scored on his first touch upon re-entering the game. He added seven assists and three steals in one of his best games of the season.

“I know his numbers are awesome and he really was assertive and stuff but he really had us incredibly organized,” Nurse said. “He found a bunch of little wrinkles. We’d run one set and he’d run it maybe three times in a row and he’d find something different all three times when he saw the first one, how they were covering it. He had a great floor game from a leadership standpoint.”

The Raptors gave two-time MVP Nikola Jokic a steady diet of O.G. Anunoby, the same formula they used successfully in Denver just over a week ago. Anunoby again pressured Jokic when the seven-foot centre was trying to run the Nuggets offence. Jokic initiated far fewer sets Tuesday, an anticipated reaction.

“I think one of the things he likes to do is bring the ball up the floor and we did pressure that early (in the first meeting) and they kind of just got away from it,” Nurse said before the game. ”Will they try to force that issue a little more tonight? Maybe. We’ll see if that is a factor but, again, when they realize what you’re trying to take away, they quickly start moving to the other things to see how you’re going to play those.”

Jokic managed to find teammates on cuts through the lane and had a couple of plays where he made quick cuts of his own to get to the rim. He finished with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

“The beauty of Nikola is every night he’s going to read how he’s being guarded and he’s going to react accordingly,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He never goes into a game (thinking) ‘I’m doing this.’

Fred VanVleet’s 36 points leads Raptors past Denver Nuggets | Toronto Sun

Toronto’s defence effectively pestered Jokic and his teammates throughout the first quarter, building a 49-30 lead after 12 minutes. That’s the most the Raptors have ever scored in a single quarter, topping the previous high of 48 set on Jan. 11, 1997 at New Jersey.

VanVleet led the Raptors’ offence in the first half, scoring 18 by intermission. Toronto led by as much as 22 points in the second quarter and held a 72-56 advantage at the end of the half.

VanVleet brought the 19,800 in attendance to their feet with back-to-back three-pointers with 8:41 left in the third quarter for an 86-64 lead. A 12-3 Nuggets run helped Denver reel in Toronto, with Jeff Green’s hook shot from under the rim cutting the Raptors lead to 98-92 after three quarters.

Aaron Gordon drained one of two free throws with 10:12 to play to pull Denver to within three. After the teams exchanged field goals VanVleet came back on the court and drained a three-pointer to make it 105-99 with 8:32 left to play.

Raptors all-star forward Pascal Siakam drove to the net for a layup to add two more points to that lead more than minute later. Anunoby dunked on the next possession, and when Green made a bad pass leading Denver back up the floor, Toronto guard Gary Trent Jr. stole the ball for an easy two points and a 12-point lead.

The two teams had seven points apiece over the next three minutes of play, with a VanVleet three helping Toronto slightly pull away when Jokic could only reply with a 12-foot jumper. Barnes and Toronto centre Jakob Poeltl had back-to-back dunks as the Raptors piled on for a 125-108 advantage.

GANTER: Fred VanVleet smear campaign is ridiculous | Toronto Sun

Given the current climate around the Raptors in general and Fred VanVleet in particular, it was the kind of night you half expected VanVleet to arrive at the podium post game, look straight into the cameras, and simply shrug and say something like ‘How do you like me now?’

The Raptors defeated the Nuggets, 125-110. Fred VanVleet led all scorers with 36 points (8-12 3pt FG) and seven assists for the Raptors, while Scottie Barnes added 18 points, seven rebounds, and five assists in the victory. Nikola Jokic tallied 28 points, 8 rebounds, and seven assists for the Nuggets in the losing effort. The Raptors improve to 33-36 on the season, while the Nuggets fall to 46-23.

For whatever reason, VanVleet has become the Raptor too many in the local fanbase want to blame every time things don’t go the team’s way.

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That wasn’t the case Tuesday night, of course. A 125-110 win over the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets put most of the daggers away for at least an evening.

All VanVleet did was throw up a game-high 36 points, three shy of his personal season best, contribute seven assists and three rebounds, and two steals to the cause.

If that wasn’t enough, defensively he hounded one of Canada’s premier exports in Jamal Murray into a 5-for-18 shooting night as the Kitchener native suffered a 14-point night in front of family and friends he desperately wanted to impress.

It was VanVleet’s fourth 30-plus-point night in the past month and a half as he has rallied from some shooting issues in the first half of the season to put up the kind of numbers he’s come to deliver over most of his six years in the league.

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But for whatever reason that narrative that VanVleet is not the answer for the Raptors remains out there.

The fact of the matter is the Raptors are good because VanVleet is good. When they win it’s because he’s either setting the scoring tone or enabling someone else to with his natural ability to run an offence and find the hot hand.

Tuesday against the Nuggets it was VanVleet at his all-around best self.

He was controlling the offence, dominating the scoring load and making life miserable for opposing guard Murray.

Every player, no matter how good or bad he is, has his detractors around the league but the groundswell of finger-pointing aimed directly at VanVleet as the root of all Raptors evil makes no sense in this corner.

Every time we read something like that from an irate fan venting on social media, the first instinct is to ask aloud, ‘What game are you watching?’

Yes, the Raptors have issues. No, the season has not gone according to anyone’s plan, but to survey the situation and then land on Fred VanVleet as the reason things are the way they are just seems ridiculously misguided.

To meet their goals, the Raptors need Siakam to play like one of the NBA’s best – Sportsnet

You can’t take Siakam’s overall season away from him. He may have swung for ‘top-five’ and missed, but he’s been very good. Barring something strange over the remaining 14 games of the regular season, Siakam will post a career-high scoring average (24.4 now vs 22.9 in 2019-20), a career-best for assists (5.9 now vs. 5.3 last season) and a career-mark for free throw attempts (6.9 vs. 5.6 last season).

His efficiency is where he falls a little short. His effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the relative value of two-point and three-point field goals) is 51.1 which is down from last season (52.5) and below the league average (54.4) while his True Shooting percentage (which includes free throws) is also down. Where last season he was at 56.5 he’s a 56.2 this year, which is a fractional difference, but also comes as the league-average mark (58.1) is at an all-time high.

It profiles a very good player having a very good offensive season – the only other players averaging at least 24.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists are the league’s best: Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and LeBron James. The difference is that the other three are averaging – on aggregate – 29/10/8 with a TS% of .631.

Siakam’s on the same island, but in a different time zone.

The various ‘catch-all’ numbers – statistical models that try to correlate box score data while accounting for lineups, quality of competition, defensive impact, and other variables – tell a similar story. According to a recent post by Andy Bailey, who took an average of player rankings across 10 different models, the top five are Jokic, Doncic, Joel Embiid, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Siakam ranks 36th as of Friday.

But with 14 games left the Raptors need Siakam at his best, such as he was this time last season when his surge drove Toronto’s late run up to 48 wins and the fifth seed in the East, developments no one saw coming and which were crucial in Siakam earning third-team all-NBA honour after a slow start hurt a chance at being named an all-star at mid-season. Siakam was outstanding during Toronto’s final push as he averaged 26.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 52.1 per cent from the floor over his last 17 games, during which Toronto went 14-3.

For the moment Siakam’s slippage and his struggle to maintain the joy that’s so important to him are mysteries, or at least subjects he prefers not delving into too deeply.

“I think a lot of things could do that,” he said when I asked him why the fun part of the job has faded lately. “A lot of things from energy around or a lot of things from losing, it’s a lot of things that can make that fade away a little bit just because I care so much about the game and I care so much about wanting to get better and wanting to win but, also, I have to keep that balance which is easier said than done.

“It’s the hardest thing but I think I’ll be okay.”

That’s the thing though. For the Raptors to meet their goals in the near term and beyond, they need Siakam to be what he set out to be this season: one of the best players in the game.

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