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Raptors drop a close one to Denver, 106-103, following an awful shooting night

The Raptors couldn’t overcome a 14 percent 3-point shooting first half, and were the victims of some highly questionable foul calls toward the end of this one. They drop their home game against Denver, 106-103.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors lost a nail-biter to the Nuggets Monday night thanks to incredibly unlucky shot-making (missing?) by Toronto, despite erasing an 11-point fourth quarter deficit.

Kawhi Leonard led Toronto with 27 points and eight rebounds, while Kyle Lowry added 11 assists. Pascal Siakam continued his torrid stretch, contributing 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists to go along with two steals.

The Raptors host the 76ers on Wednesday in their first game against the new look Philly team, now led by Jimmy Butler.

Toronto started this game off looking a little antsy, with possession after possession resulting in ill-advised passes and rushed shots. The lone bright spot during this brouhaha was Pascal SIakam who shone — with two beautiful spin moves (what else) — during a personal 6-0 run. Siakam, ladies and gents, is a budding star in this league — book it.

So while Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry started out slow, Serge Ibaka, Danny Green and Siakam picked up the slack to help the Raptors back into the game by the mid-way point of the first quarter, down 16-14.

The Nuggets were able to get easy looks on the perimeter with some pristine ball movement, starting the game off 2-of-4 from distance compared to Toronto’s 2-of-6 mark. After the first quarter break, Toronto’s defense really began to lock-down — the Nuggets would miss their next six 3-point shots, however the Raptors failed to capitalize — making just 1-of-11 in that same span.

In addition to Denver’s drought, Leonard was finally able to generate some points. This shift in momentum resulted in the Raptors taking hold of the lead after a couple free throws from the aforementioned superstar. On the very next possession, a Lowry steal and dish to a cutting Leonard capped off an 8-0 run to put the Raptors up four points, triggering a Mike Malone (Coach of the Nuggets) timeout.

It was the usual start for Toronto — test the waters, look for weak spots and then make a strike. After not seeing much from Kawhi during the first six minutes of the game, Leonard caught fire afterward, scoring eight points in the rest of the first quarter. Despite his hot shooting, Leonard wasn’t able to help the Raptors from long-distance — finishing 2-of-12 (17 percent) from deep in the first quarter.

Unfortunately, the starters can’t play the entire game — once the bench unit began trickling in, the Nuggets ripped off a 9-0 run of their own, which helped them take a 27-24 lead into the second quarter.

It was in this moment we all knew the Raptors had to focus and make some changes in order to win this game. However, it’s nothing new — the Raptors have had starts like this one in games past — we saw one just last week against the Grizzlies — before they buckled in and went orbital.

Leonard led all scorers with eight points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field, missing all three of his 3-point shots, while Lowry dished a team-high four assists.

All throughout the first half, Toronto was plagued by the basketball gods. Wide open shots weren’t falling, open layups were dancing around the rim and they weren’t getting those 50-50 balls they seem to dominate in other games. The first half was an ugly one but, as Matt Devlin loves to remind us nearly every broadcast, things can change quickly in the NBA.

And yet, despite playing really ugly basketball to start — the Raptors were looking at just a two-point deficit with just under nine minutes remaining in the second quarter.

Could the Raptors turn things around in time to take a lead into halftime?

Could the Raptors get back to the style of basketball that propelled them to a league-best 20-4 record a quarter of the way through the season?

Not exactly. The Nuggets, after missing six straight threes, would make 3-of-6 three-pointers, helping them to a seven-point lead with just three minutes remaining in the second quarter.

The Nuggets were consistently abusing the Raptors unwillingness to go over screens, leaving guards wide open for long-distance shots — two from Malik Beasley and one from Jamal Murray — courtesy of Nikola Jokic’s crisp passing.

In addition to Jokic setting brick-wall screens for his shooters, he dished ten first half assists, and capitalized on two offensive rebounds for easy buckets, both times in a crowd of Raptors standing around watching the action.

At this point, the Nuggets were simply playing with more energy and, to put it bluntly, running the show. But again — there’s always a second half.

Could Toronto regain their composure after the break?

Their first order of business, down 59-47 at halftime, would be to shoot the ball better — they finished the first half shooting 14 percent from beyond the arc, 3-of-22. It’s not as if the guys were launching ill-advised, well-defended shots — most were open looks, they were just simply not going down.

You could say this was not Toronto’s night, that they should pack it up and dial it in, and all signs pointed toward that happening. That is, until the third quarter.

Remember that super-defense we saw against the Grizzlies last week? Well it came back with a vengeance. I dubbed it “superglue” defense, because guys were attached man-to-man like superglue. Feet were moving, guys were talking, switches left and right — it helped the Raptors get within five points by the middle of the third quarter and the Raptors were back in the ball game.

While they never got the run needed to take back the lead — because of some really annoying and unfortunate in-and-out shots — they looked like a different team than the first half — playing with energy and focus on both ends.

So, one would have to think the shots would start falling at some point, right?

After the Raptors got the lead down to just five points, the deficit hovered between six and eleven for the remainder of the third quarter. The bench unit came in, bolstered by Kawhi Leonard for a few minutes (a wonderful choice that many fans have been begging for), and OG Anunoby — who was dampened in the first half by three fouls in four minutes — immediately hit a three pointer to get the crowd back in the game.

The bench unit looked just as energetic as the starters did coming into the second half and despite not gaining much on the scoreboard, you couldn’t help but feel good after the unit forced the Nuggets into a non-shot possession at the end of the third quarter — which the Raptors were trailing 86-78.

The effort didn’t exactly lead to results though. It seemed like for every great play the bench unit made, there was a play that killed them. It was as frustrating to watch as it is to read, as you could imagine. Defensively, the team was really locked in, and if the Raptors could hit some shots, we might’ve seen that crucial run made by the home team.

That run would be right around the corner.

With just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and after a few critical stops on the defensive end, the Raptors came storming back, capping off a 10-0 run with a C.J. Miles three above the break to get within a point, 89-88.

And then things went a little sideways — Nick Nurse got a tech, the Nuggets shot four three throws (one of which was missed) and the lead was back up to four points. Would Nurse’s fiery demeanor relay to his players on the court?

Nurse would close the game with his go-to five-man lineup — Lowry, Green, Siakam, Leonard and Ibaka — with just over five minutes remaining in the game. This was it: all the missed shots, the defensive intensity, the nail-biting and nervous nellies — it all came down to this lineup.

This is when the Raptors looked like a contender on both ends. After these five took the floor, Ibaka capped off a 6-0 run to tie the game at 94 apiece with a monster jam in traffic assisted by — who else — Pascal Siakam. It was the play that got the players — and the crowd (including yours truly) — back in the game.

From here on out it was a one possession game, each team taking turns grinding for a made shot — racking up fouls and digging in defensively.

With just over a minute left, the Raptors gathered the rebound on a missed wide-open three-pointer by Jokic. Lowry pushed the ball up the floor, finding Siakam who backed down his defender before finding Leonard on the perimeter. Leonard, with a beautiful stutter-step, got to his sweet spot (just outside the right elbow), pulled up and nailed a jumper.

Raptors went up 101-100 with 55 seconds left.

However, as it was written, Jokic made a push shot in the lane the next time down the floor to give Denver a 102-101 lead, and then the Raptors blew three straight chances on the next possession after their ensuing timeout and, after getting the rebound Juancho Hernangomez hit one of two free throws to push the lead back up to two, 103-101, with 12 seconds remaining.

Toronto had one last chance — they needed to make a shot, and then get a stop.

Kawhi, looking for his go-to move, drove from the top of the three point line to the right baseline, rose up over two defenders and nailed the short 10-foot jumper. The game was tied at 103 apiece with 7 seconds left.

Part one of two complete.

The next trip down? Christ, where to start.

Serge Ibaka was called for a foul before the ball was in-bounded — a highly questionable call to begin with — giving Jokic a free throw and Denver the ball. He ended up making all three free throws after immediately being fouled following the second inbound play, giving Denver a 106-103 lead.

Not good.

Kyle Lowry brought the ball up for a last second shot, got to the right side, heaved a shot and missed. That was the ball game.

The Raptors eight-game win streak comes to a highly-questionable end, but — it’s a long season and it’s just one loss.

If I can say one thing — whenever the NBA gives us rookie/green referees, we get games like this: bad, inconsistent calls all-around. I know it’s not the reason we lost, but it’s a trend I’m noticing. There’s too many green refs in the league right now, and it’s something we’ll continue to have to deal with throughout the season.

Apologies for the extended post, but the game got too good to gloss over the details toward the end of the game.

Look forward to the next game at home against Philadelphia.