Despite winning far more games than they’ve been losing this season, we’ve grown a bit concerned about the Raptors as of late. The number of blowouts has declined, a few losses have stung, and the formerly top-ranked defense has faltered. Since all we’re doing now in Toronto is waiting for the playoffs — in anxiety or excitement — each remaining game of the regular season is a referendum. The question: are the Raptors ready for what’s coming?
If Tuesday night’s 114-110 Raptors win over the Nuggets can provide any indication one way or the other, I’ll hazard an answer: yes, with reservations — obviously. Is that a cop out to a binary yes or no question? Perhaps. Or maybe I’m just trying to toe that aforementioned line between anxiety and excitement, and, by extension, expectations versus reality.
In truth, there was a lot to like about the Raptors’ collective performance against Denver. The team’s offense felt fluid with 33 assists — against only nine turnovers — on 47 field goal attempts. Toronto shot 51 percent from the field, and 38 percent from three (13-for-34, which is right in line with where it should be; despite a 1-of-7 night from C.J. Miles). And, as indicated, they flew past the 100 point barrier once again. It was also great to see the Bench Mob soar (more on that in a second). So, A-OK on the offensive end for Toronto.
What’s had people nervous as of late about Toronto is, generally, their defense, and more specifically, the performance of certain players. On that second note, it says something that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were relatively muted tonight and the Raps still won. The former had 11 points and eight assists and helped dictate play in his way; while the latter had a relatively quiet 15 points and eight assists. Not bad, but neither was quite the difference maker in a tight contest. (Neither of them even got to the free throw line once!)
Meanwhile, despite the mostly gaudy shooting stats for the Nuggets, the Raptors’ defense was solid for the majority of the game. By my eye, you could point to a hot second quarter from Denver in which they shot 67 percent, and some trouble with the Serge Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas pairing to start the third, as the weakest moments. Taken all together, Ibaka acquitted himself well though. His jumper wasn’t falling for most of the game, but he was active on the boards and at the rim, and did what he could to slow both Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. (That didn’t stop Jokic from having a mammoth 29-16-8 line.) Ibaka finished with a hard-fought 13 points, six rebounds, and four blocks.
Valanciunas, beyond the box score, did not fare as well. He started the game on Jokic and got worked, then switched to Millsap to start the third and got cooked there too. The Raptors big man did have 15 points, seven rebounds, and four blocks — but Toronto still lost many of those minutes, and played from behind for most of the second and third quarters, on into the fourth.
Now, the defensive lapses weren’t all JV’s fault. His sub Jakob Poeltl looked woeful during his first half minutes, drawing four fouls and necessitating the insertion of Lucas Nogueira as a stopgap measure. (For his efforts, Bebe had three blocks, including a massive stuff on Mason Plumlee that should go in a highlight reel somewhere.) But when Valanciunas’ minutes dried up in the second half, Poeltl eventually got back on the floor and turned things around completely. Where have we heard this before?
Poeltl, along with his usual running mates Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, were responsible for turning the game around as the Raptors flew into the fourth. Poeltl had all 12 of his points (on 6-of-8 shooting) in the frame, plus eight rebounds, and a block for the game. His sudden forceful presence on both ends of the court opened things up for the Raptors. And of course, the rest of his guys fed off the energy boost. Siakam went off 12 points, six rebounds, five assists, and made life miserable for anyone he guarded. While VanVleet was his usual steady self — 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting, with four assists, and no turnovers. The fourth quarter was a textbook example of how this Raptors bench can work together to win games.
That this game was as close as it was feels like a testament to the Nuggets’ absurd shot-making ability. Everyone for Denver, save Jamal Murray and his stifled 6-of-18 night, jumped in to make shots when the team needed them. The Raptors often were in the right place at the right time, but it didn’t matter for much of the night. Right down to the wire, when Murray finally did hit a huge three, the Nuggets hung close.
So now maybe you feel like I do about this game and this team. The Raptors played well for stretches, did what they were supposed to do, watched the Nuggets hit some tough shots or play up certain advantages, and eventually won out. My expectation was they’d win — and the outcome agreed. The defense was sound, the offensive was kinetic and efficient, and now everyone gets a three-day lay-off to prepare for the next referendum (this time against the Celtics in Boston).
Are the Raptors ready? At 55-20, still in first, and showing runs of play like they did tonight, it certainly feels like it to me. How about you?