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Raptors limp home, lose to Nuggets 95-86

Down a bunch of regulars, the Raptors had to patch together a valiant effort from just ten total players in uniform.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After beginning the road trip looking like supermen, the Raptors cannot wait to get home, get under a warm blanket and rest up those injuries. After sitting five rotation players in the loss against Denver on Sunday, Toronto doesn’t play again until Wednesday evening against the Indiana Pacers, a contest they hope to be healthier for.

It’s tough to sugarcoat this game folks, so let’s just call it what it was from the start — a slug fest. Toronto came out of the gate looking to rely on its single star in uniform: Kawhi Leonard — and rely they did.

Leonard came out of the gate playing aggressively on both ends, forcing turnovers on defense and getting to the rim on offense in his usual stylistic fashion, but it was his former Spur teammate Danny Green who led the Raptors in scoring, with seven first quarter points.

The Raptors would come out of the first quarter unscathed, knotted up at 23 apiece with the Nuggets. As was noted on the Sportsnet broadcast, part of this success was due to Toronto’s success containing Nikola Jokic, playing great man defense, and when mismatched, providing sufficient help defense to stifle the big-man’s offensive repertoire.

The Raptors would carry a 5-0 run at the end of the first quarter into the second, stretching it to a 12-0 run before forcing a Mike Malone timeout with his team down 30-23. As we all envisioned, the lineup of Lorenzo Brown, OG Anunoby, Greg Monroe, C.J. Miles and Green would lead the Raptors’ attempt to open the game up for the first time on the night.

However, just as they did in Toronto a couple weeks ago, the Nuggets responded well after Malone’s timeout — turning in three straight positive possessions, erasing the seven point lead, before eventually taking a three point lead of their own — all in a span of about three minutes.

Around the 7:40 mark, Leonard and Ibaka returned to the floor and along with them, a sense of calm that had been missing during the preceding run. If nothing else, defense returned. Between that point and the next timeout at 3:06 — just 12 total points were scored, six by each side. I told you I wasn’t going to sugarcoat this one — it was mostly ugly.

But then, suddenly, like a Christmas/Boxing Day Miracle, the Raptors popped out an 11-0 baby-Jesus-like run over those next three minutes to take a eight-point lead heading into halftime.

Led by Leonard and Ibaka with ten points apiece, the Raptors had a strangle hold on Denver’s offense in the first half — holding the Nuggets to just 36 percent overall from the floor — Jokic and Murray combined for 5-of-16 shooting — while also out-rebounding the third-best rebounding team in the league by nine, 28-19 — including five to four on the offensive glass.

After a satisfying finish to the first half, the third quarter became the Leonard show — his offense was felt on nearly every possession, from hard-as-nails shot-making, to splitting defenders with passes — he scored 13 points in ten third quarter minutes to help give the Raptors a nine-point cushion by the time he got a breather.

We can’t go into the fourth quarter without giving this highlight a mention though, because it was such a beautiful display of athleticism:

Unfortunately, we had to learn first-hand why there’s a reason Kawhi Leonard is considered one of the best players on the planet, because once he sat, the lead shrank to just four in less than two minutes time. So, onto the fourth quarter, up by four points!

You really hate to put an entire game on one player, because thousands of things happen that can change or alter the end outcome, but this game really felt like it could’ve been Toronto’s if they only had someone other than Lorenzo Brown to turn to at the end of the third/beginning of the fourth quarter.

Again, this isn’t on him — it’s not his fault we had injuries to the starting and top backup point guards, nor was it his fault Miles or Anunoby couldn’t hit an open three to save their lives.

By the time the Raptors scored their first points of the fourth, the final frame was almost half over and they were still down just six points. But with the way the game had been going and the way it had been played, you knew that points weren’t easy nor would they be easy to come by — especially in the final six minutes of a road game taking place in a city that’s five-thousand, three-hundred feet in the air.

The chances either team would hit 100 points in this game were close to nil, with the Nuggets 18-points away with fewer than six minutes remaining. So when Jamal Murray nailed a three to put the Nuggets ahead nine points with just over four minutes remaining — the grave felt all but covered.

The final pat of dirt on the casket came when Ibaka fouled out — along with a concurrent technical foul — with under two minutes remaining. Let’s leave this one where we found it folks. It was uneventful for long stretches; on average it was hard to watch, and at its best it was hopeful.

Kawhi led all Raptors with 29 points and 14 rebounds and was the sole bright spot on the evening.