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Raptors ride their stars, beat Nuggets 105-102

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Toronto’s All-Star back court is the only thing separating the Raptors from a 1-2 record.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Nights like Monday make it hard to avoid reductive analysis.

Based on how it played in a disjointed and uneven second half, Toronto should have lost to the Nuggets on Monday night. After carrying a 13-point lead into the final 24, the Raptors abandoned the sharp defending and automatic offense they built their early cushion with, replacing them with offensive monotony and defensive despondence.

But then late in the fourth quarter, with the Raptors staring up at a 6-point deficit, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan did what you’ve come to expect of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Their respective offensive outbursts in crunch time bailed the Raptors out and secured a win that should have never been so in doubt.

DeRozan’s late supply of six fourth quarter points was just a continuation of a ridiculous opening two and a half games. Piling on to his 40-point and 32-point outings to start the year, DeRozan poured in another 20 on just 12 shots in the first two frames on Monday. That he closed the game out with a handful of clutch buckets wasn’t surprising given the standards he’s set for himself this season.

“The guy is playing unbelievable basketball,” said Lowry. “Averaging over 30 points. I don’t know his percentage but it doesn’t even matter. He’s playing the way he’s supposed to play and the way he knows how to play.”

Lowry’s late heroics were a tad more unforeseen after a sputtery pair of games against Detroit and Cleveland last week. They were also familiar. You could sense early that a different Lowry showed up on Monday night. He darted crisp passes to Jonas Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll and chipped in points while maintaining efficiency. Were it not for first half foul trouble, the explosion may have come sooner. Instead, Lowry’s long-awaited outbreak served as a final counter to a slew of body blows by an annoying Nuggets team. In the final eight minutes, Lowry racked up 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including the final two baskets of the game.

“We were getting switches but we were settling for mid-range jump shots instead of getting all the way to the basket, then we started to do that,” said Casey on what led to the late-game success of Lowry and DeRozan.

Lowry in particular was a terror for Denver’s taller wings and hulking big men, who were essentially just pylons dotting a turbo-speed layup line in the fourth.

Having the two best players on the court isn’t always a foolproof formula for winning, but it’s hard to argue that it was the exact reason Toronto came away with its second win of the year against Denver.

Interestingly enough, the degree to which Lowry and DeRozan were superior to their teammates is one of a few troubling signs to come out of Monday’s game. When the pair combine for 62 points on 43 shots, it accentuates how predictable the Raptors’ ISO-heavy offense can be. Why fix something that’s been working to such great effect, right?

Well, the one-dimensional sets that helped bring the Raptors back from near disaster almost cost them in the final minute. With just 34 seconds on the clock, the Raptors ran multiple screens for Lowry and DeRozan in hopes of aligning one of those mismatches Casey was talking about. But instead of finding an open look or lane to the basket, the Raptors found a shot clock violation. Emmanuel Mudiay’s missed three-pointer near the buzzer is the only reason the preceding sequence probably won’t be dissected in-depth tomorrow.

Dependence on stars has its limits. Toronto has the luxury of employing two offensive pillars who are nearly impossible to contain when both are singing in unison as they did against the Nuggets. But at some point, DeRozan won’t be averaging 35 a game and Lowry won’t be ‘over everything.’

Those will be the nights where Patrick Patterson’s ice-cold three point shot, or Jonas Valanciunas’ spacey pick-and-roll defense, or the greenness of Toronto’s two rookies might be exposed.

For now though, embrace first duet performed by Toronto’s impressive back court combo this season. When they play like they did on Halloween night, the rest of the Raptors’ issues feel less scary.