Hours after our Co-Editor in Chief Daniel Reynolds asked just how high the Raptors winning streak could get, going so far as to invoke Alfred Hitchcock, the Toronto Raptors got absolutely demolished at the Pepsi Centre against the Denver Nuggets to a final score of 112-93.
The first quarter can be summed up as both teams trading baskets with little defensive interference. While the Raptors started hot, making 5 of their first 6 shots, they also had no answer for the Nuggets rookie Nikola Jokic. Jokic showed his offensive prowess, scoring both inside and out, including a made 3 pointer on his way to scoring Denver's first 11 points of the game. Both Jonas and Biyombo struggled to handle him, as he finished the quarter with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a block. Despite the lack of defense, it almost appeared as if there was a lid on the rim as the Raptors could not convert easy baskets. Jonas missed a few point blank, and even Lowry cut down the middle and missed a wide open finger roll. Despite Jokic's strong start, seven Raptors got on the board in the opening quarter and the first twelve minutes ended with the game knotted at 28.
Unlike the first quarter, the second frame started off slow for both teams. Toronto missed its first four shots before Joseph got them on the board. For long stretches, this quarter felt like a pick-up game, featuring more than its fair share of missed layups and easy shots which would lead to a fast break opportunity for the other team. Although the Nuggets pulled away to extend the lead to 11 by halftime, the Raptors were able to keep the game close for two main reasons: Biyombo's energy, and success at the free throw line. Whether it was Faried, Jokic, or Nurkic, the Nuggets were unable to match Biyombo's intensity both as he masterfully took advantage of the verticality rule on defense, and as he crashed the offensive boards.
Looks of exasperation, as well as vocal frustration was apparent as Biyombo would grab an offensive rebound and proceed to get fouled. As for the free throw edge, Denver Coach Mike Malone picked up his first technical foul after chastising the referees about the discrepancy. Immediately preceding his technical, the referees missed a foul on the Raptors as Jonas closed out a bit too hard on a Jokic three point attempt, but rewarded DeMar for drawing a similar, but inside-the-arc foul on Harris. Following DeMar's 3 free throws (1 for the tech), the Raptors had a 19-2 advantage at the line. Shortly after, the James Johnson collided with Gallinari and was helped off of the court; he would be diagnosed with an injured left ankle and did not return. While DeRozan led the team with 17 points, including a perfect 9 for 9 from the free throw line, Toronto's other All Star had one of his worst halves of the year. Lowry was out of sync all half, and managed 4 points on 1 of 6 shooting, a single assist, and was a -12 in just under 20 minutes. Toronto went into the half down 60-49.
There aren't many positives to note from the second half. The Raptors came out with a conscious effort to turn up the defensive intensity, but their aggression was not met with success. The Raptors showed aggressively on picks, and guarded more tightly, but too often broke down by the second rotation: the man defense was aggressive, but the team defense was ineffective. One of the few positives worth noting was a beautiful up-and-under by Lowry on Faried with about 5:30 left in the quarter, as Kyle managed to score despite having lost his dribble and having nowhere to go.
The final frame was more of the same as Denver extended its lead behind mostly Will Barton, but also Randy Foye going off. Toronto seemingly threw in the towel replacing Lowry with Powell with a little over 9 minutes to go, and fully conceded by finishing the game with a line-up of Joseph-Powell-Wright-Bennett-Nogueira.
Despite how tough this game was to watch as a Raptors fan, its hard to blame to Raptors for losing their first game in twelve tries. These things happen: teams sometimes run into a wall, and have bad games where nothing goes right, and to be clear, nothing went right today. For evidence, look no further than Lowry's statline. Sure, his 10 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists are notably low, but he also missed 5 of his 8 free throws which is absurd. While the Raptors played poorly, Denver also shot lights out: any night where the bench duo of Will Barton-Randy Foye outscore Lowry and DeRozan is not going to be fun. Lets hope that the team forgets this loss, and is ready to begin a new winning streak tomorrow at Phoenix.
- I get that Jonas isn't the best defender in space, but I do marvel at the consistency with which back-to-the-basket players score on him. Valanciunas is strong, appears to have good positioning, but still manages to be ineffective guarding post-ups. Then again, maybe I'm reading too much into a career night from Jokic.
- Speaking of Jokic, he looked like a star tonight, going for 27 points and 14 rebounds on 12 of 18 shooting from the field. Something that wont be captured in the box score, but really impressed me was his ability to play straight up on defense. What I mean by this is that even when he was outmuscled, or out of position, Jokic was able to absorb contact with his body, and keep his arms straight up, vertical, such that even with contact he would not be committing a foul. Too many players think that they're playing straight, while in reality leaning. Jokic is not one of them.
- Lowry's free throws. Yikes.
- I hate watching players return from injury without their previously held athleticism. Having returned from his knee injury, Danilo Gallinari is clearly not the same player that he was before. He's still got great skill, and size, but lacks the previously underrated explosiveness in his first step. Its a real shame considering that pre-injury Gallinari would have been an ideal small ball big man with the way that the league is trending today.
- Oh Bebe. We love you, but you need to stop being so tentative. Nogueira was tentative on too many occasions, even in garbage time. On a few occasions, Bebe had the ball with Barton guarding him on a switch, less than 5 feet from the basket. He didn't even look to score. This needs to change.