Last night was a fun one! 12 ties and 14 lead changes! A tired Denver Nuggets team kept it close with some terrific shot-making, but the Toronto Raptors eventually prevailed 114-110 behind a solid defensive effort.
That’s the Defense We Were Missing
You knew defense was going to be critical in this one, as the Nuggets represent one of the league’s best offenses (109 points per game, 109.4 offensive rating—both good for 6th in the league). And for the first time in what’s felt like weeks, the Raptors finally played solid D for almost the entire game.
It may not entirely look like it on the scoreboard; they did give up 110, after all. But holding Denver to 47% shooting is decent, and just on the eye test alone you could see the Raptors were engaged, were getting after it, were recovering better on screens, and were forcing the Nuggets into tough shots. And the numbers back it up:
(For context, the Raptors average 63.6 contests on 87.5 FGA [72.7%]. Best in the league is GSW at 78.8%. That was 87.6% from Raptors.)— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 28, 2018
(Seriously, some of those shots were downright ridiculous.)
The Raptors also forced 13 turnovers and blocked a season-high 16 shots (Kyle Lowry somehow had four! Lucas Nogueira had three, in under seven minutes!).
Serge Ibaka Found a Way to Contribute
The old adage in basketball circles is that if your shot isn’t falling, you can always find another way to contribute on the floor. With Serge Ibaka, his shot has been MIA for more than a week (2-of-12 on 3-pointers, and 12-of-28 overall, the past three games) but other than a block here and there, he was practically unnoticeable on the floor.
Last night was a different story. He had four blocks, had two offensive rebounds in the second quarter that he turned into second chance points, moved the ball about as well as I’ve ever seen him (including a sweet pass to OG Anunoby for a dunk in the third quarter), and had a nice strip of Paul Millsap in the third as well.
He also ended up shooting 6-of-11, and although a couple of those misses were absolute bricks (on the play after he stripped Millsap, his 3-pointer hit where the hoop meets the backboard and I thought the glass might shatter) the shots themselves were in the flow of the offense.
I’m not alone in hoping that this is the Serge Ibaka the Raptors see in the playoffs.
The Bench Restored our Faith
Much like Ibaka, the Raptors vaunted bench unit had been a bit underwhelming lately. They looked overmatched against the Clippers on Sunday, in particular, and in the first half last night, they didn’t quite have their mojo back either; after the Raptors held the Nuggets to 23 points in the first quarter, Denver scored 14 in the first five minutes of the second, prompting earlier-than-usual returns for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Jonas Valanciunas and Ibaka returned shortly thereafter.
I thought this might be Dwane Casey experimenting with a playoff rotation; he’s indicated so far that he wants to stick with the bench unit in the postseason, but I suspect he’ll run it out there for fewer minutes total.
Of course, that thinking blew up in the second half, as the bench played sensational defense to start the fourth quarter. The effort continued when Kyle Lowry replaced C.J. Miles (who shot 2-for-11, after a 4-for-12 performance against the Clippers), and that unit—Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright—closed the game.
I don’t think it’s a knock on the starters at all; DeRozan (15 points, 8 assists, much better effort on D than we’ve seen recently) and Valanciunas (15 points, 7 rebounds) were playing well. But the Bench Mob was completely locked in in that fourth quarter, forcing shot clock violations, deflecting passes, fighting around screens and moving the ball with purpose, so I give Casey credit for sticking with what was working.
Pascal Siakam Gave us a Scare
When Miles Plumlee rolled over onto Siakam’s leg in the first quarter, it was a moment of terror for Raptors fans. The replay showed Pascal’s knee buckling awkwardly, and I literally yelled “NOOO” at the TV. Thankfully, he walked it off, and then proceeded to play an absolute gem of a game the rest of the way.
He shined in the second half in particular, with two stellar dunks and a third fantastic finish at the rim, and two sweet dimes—one to Miles for Miles’ only 3-pointer, and another beauty to Poeltl in the lane for a layup. He played rock-solid defense on Paul Millsap in the fourth quarter as well, holding the Nuggets forward scoreless after he scored 20 on 9-of-12 shooting through the first three quarters.
Siakam’s 3-point shot, sadly, reverted to the norm (0-for-2) and he did have one out-of-control drive that was very reminiscent of his rookie season. But the growth he’s shown this season is astounding. Let’s all be thankful that clumsy old Plumlee didn’t do any damage.
Credit Poeltl for Keeping His Head (and Dunking on Millsap’s)
Jakob Poeltl picked up four fouls in under seven first half minutes last night, and at least two of them (possibly all four) were garbage, ticky-tack calls (if not outright bad calls). I’d’ve been fuming if I were in Poeltl’s shoes; he’s played excellent defense this year, the numbers back it up, and the refs need to catch up. Dudes are failing to score on him and failing to get rebounds over him not because he’s fouling them, but because he’s good.
The foul trouble led to some Bebe minutes (which I was fine with against this mobile Nuggets frontcourt) but Poeltl played the entire fourth; he didn’t pick up another foul and actually played his best ball of the past two weeks, shooting 6-of-7 for 12 points, grabbing three offensive rebounds, and blocking a shot.
The most impressive of those six field goals, of course, was the Blake Griffin-esque throw-down over Millsap:
(How fast do the refs blow the whistle if you reverse Millsap and Poeltl in that sequence? I mean, Millsap smacked him right in the face! Sheesh.)
And so, the collective angst level goes down a notch. Phew! Now it’s three days of rest, then the big test: Boston-Cleveland-Boston. I’m not sure what to expect, but I hope the games are at least as fun and exciting as last night’s.