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Five thoughts on last night: Nuggets 133, Raptors 118

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The Raptors hung around long enough in Denver to give us all hope, but couldn’t overcome being without a centre against a good Nuggets team. 

Five thoughts recap: Denver Nuggets 133, Toronto Raptors 118, Pascal Siakam Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

That one kinda hurt, didn’t it? The shorthanded Toronto Raptors had no business being in last night’s game against the Denver Nuggets at all, and the fact that they were, and might have even stolen a victory if they’d gotten a little more — heck, anything at all — from their best player makes it a painful loss.

And that’s the thing — I fully expected a loss. No centres? No Fred VanVleet? No chance, right? When the Nuggets jumped out ahead early, I was OK with it. But when the Raptors climbed all the way back to tie the game at 60, and then hung around through the first 19 minutes of the second half, I had hope! Then they fell apart at the end and snatched that hope away.

It’s All Catching Up

While you never want to point to injuries as an excuse, especially after the Raptors have played so well despite their injuries this season, it’s starting to catch up now. And playing the Nuggets, in Denver, down three key players was always gonna be tough to overcome.

Not having your two best bigs is problem enough against Nikola Jokic, of course. But not having three guys who eat up 24+ minutes means that extended runs for others, and in the high altitude of Denver, those minutes can take a huge toll... especially on OG Anunoby and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who have to bang with guys that have six inches and 25+ pounds on them.

That just leaves no margin for error.

Growing Pains

Is it time to be concerned about Pascal Siakam’s ability to finish at the rim lately — or should I say, inability to finish at the rim?

Pascal’s actually shown a few holes in his game of late. His playmaking seems to have plateaued, right when defenses are sending more bodies to him. His outside shooting has become more streaky. And in the paint? All of those quick-jump floaters and baby hooks that he used to softly drop in off the glass are flying the rim at all angles.

I’m not sure if he’s caught a case of Rondae disease, or if he’s tired, or the help defense has him shook. But in these last two games, he’s just 14-for-29 in the paint. With the Raptors missing their two big men, they really need someone to be a presence down there on the offensive end, and the fact that Pascal isn’t delivering, has been... disconcerting. And if the three-ball isn’t dropping either (2-for-12 in the last two)... again, it’s really asking a lot of the others players on the team to make up for the absence of Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam.

With all of that said: If there is one player I am 100% certain of who will work and work and get better and successfully develop into the player he needs to be to handle this defensive attention, it’s Pascal Siakam.

OG, Guarding Centres

The stats tell most of the story of OG Anunoby’s game last night: 32 points on 16 shots, seven rebounds, seven steals, three assists. And he filled up the highlight reel with multiple dunks off of steals.

But one thing that doesn’t make the highlight reels is how strong OG played the post. While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was essentially the starting centre, Anunoby spent just as much time guarding Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee — and he was pretty damn effective at it. Sure, Jokic had a triple-double and Plumlee shot five free throws in 10 minutes, but none of that came easy for them.

The fact that Anunoby had his best offensive showing, and was still a menace on the perimeter, while playing multiple minutes at centre, shows how much potential he has — and shows that, while he’s had plenty of ups and downs, he’s far from a finished product.

On the Run

One thing the Raptors did very well last night was score on the break. They forced a lot of turnovers, and held their own on the glass, both of which led to runouts — but they also did a fantastic job of inbounding quickly after makes and beating Denver down the court. It was fun to watch, and it helped the Raptors get back into the game, as they outscored the Nuggets 18-7 on the fast break.

I think it also took a lot out of them. The team seemed to run out of gas down the stretch, with several poor decisions on offense and number of missed assignments on D, including in transition.

Part of the problem there may have been the minutes distribution. I know the team wasn’t getting much from the bench (more on that soon) and was short-handed, but I think 17, nine and six minutes for Terence Davis, Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas, respectively, was too low. Anunoby, Siakam and Powell each played 40, and Lowry played 38. That’s a lot of run in the rare air at Denver.

Bench Poison

Is it any coincidence that in the three games Patrick McCaw sat out with the flu, the Raptors bench averaged 40 points per game — and in the two games with him back, the bench has averaged 14.5?

It probably is. And that first number is skewed by the bench playing extended minutes in the blowout against Indiana. But still. McCaw continues to confuse. I’m not sure what he does out there that justifies the multiple blow-bys he gives up, or the multiple open looks he passes up. Does he know the schemes better than Terence Davis and Matt Thomas? Perhaps. But what good is being in the right place when your man has already gone by you?

I’m trying not to write about McCaw, because it’s been done to death. But I can’t see any reason he was on the floor down the stretch of a close game with four starters. I know Nick Nurse once again called him a top-eight rotational player before the game, and with three of the top seven missing, I guess that means he was in the right spot; but how he’s ahead of Hollis-Jefferson and Davis on the depth chart is just a complete mystery to me.

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The schedule gets easier in theory for the next few games, against Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State. But the Raptors can’t take those teams lightly, and they’ll need some more healthy bodies to turn this losing streak around.