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Raptors unleash the Stanimal, defeat the Nuggets 117-109

For Toronto’s final game of the extended 2019-20 regular season, we have to ask: who needs Kawhi when you’ve got Stanley Johnson? Here’s more on Toronto’s victory over Denver.

Denver Nuggets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors finally got to their regular season finish line, and thankfully no one got injured in the process. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam all deserved their rest in this one — and, really, should have been bubble-wrapped a few games ago. Nevertheless, even in their absence, the Raptors beat the Denver Nuggets 117-109 to secure their 53-19 record on the year. It also set them with a winning percentage of .736, a new franchise best.

Toronto gave Matt Thomas his first career start, joining Norman Powell, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Marc Gasol. Surprisingly, this rag-tag crew was able to keep up with the Nuggets’ starters — including Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — taking the lead midway through the first quarter via a Thomas trifecta to cap off a 7-0 run. The Raptors put pressure on the Nuggets on both ends of the floor throughout, and Davis looked locked in, dropping 12 points in the first period.

The second quarter showed the difference between the Raptors and the Nuggets bench, with the 905-heavy squad going up by as much as 14 points. As part of their efforts, Malcolm Miller finally hit a three, Stanley Johnson made more consecutive baskets, and Paul Watson got Pascal going into all-out Airplane Mode.

The Nuggets went on an 8-0 run to cut the lead into single digits behind PJ Dozier’s 11 points in the quarter. But Gasol quelled that run by dissecting the Nuggets’ defense, dropping three consecutive dimes. As befits the final game of a long and strange season, however, things eventually got sloppy for the Raptors. The Nuggets took advantage, with Monte Morris leading a 7-0 run to put the Nuggets back in the game before the half ended.

The second half was the unofficial end to this one as Murray, Jokic, and Gasol were clearly done for the day. It didn’t take long before it became a wild, ugly, yet exciting form of Summer League-style basketball. For example, a bad Raptors possession led to a Hollis-Jefferson chase-down block that turned quickly into a Thomas transition three. Meanwhile, some skirmishes in the paint went out of control, resulting in a minor injury for Davis (abrasion under the eye — he should be fine).

It you can believe this, it was an aggressive Johnson drive to the basket that eventually forced the Nuggets to call a timeout to prevent the game from turning into a blowout. At the same time, Bol Bol didn’t appear until midway through the third quarter — which was almost comically countered by Toronto with a Dewan Hernandez appearance. Unfortunately for Hernandez, his first few possessions ended with either a turnover or a blocked shot.

On the plus side for Toronto, Johnson — the so-called Stanimal — continued to ooze with confidence. He rediscovered his perimeter shot in this one and looked very much like the highly touted lottery pick he was projected to be early in his career. On the afternoon, Johnson was the complete package — slasher, shooter, defender, and playmaker, dishing his fourth assist to Malcolm Miller for a three pointer (also a welcome sight). Just look at that confidence:

It was the best possible outcome for the Raptors. They got Davis back into the flow of things, helped Johnson and Miller rediscover themselves, were witness to more of Watson’s game, and got the record-setting win. Leading the way for the Raptors in the winning effort were Watson with 22 points, including four 3s, and the all-around solid play of Johnson, who poured in 23 points and six assists.

And by the way, the Raptors win may not be as meaningless as we originally thought. With the effort, they move past the Lakers in the overall NBA standings. So, the Raptors would get “homecourt” advantage against LeBron James and the Lakers should they make it to the Finals. Yes, they’re still playing in the Bubble, but it once again feels good to note just how great the Raptors were this year, the longest running defending NBA champs of all time.

With the Bubble regular season now over, it’s officially time for the Raptors to shift their focus to the playoffs. And that means an opening round showdown with their old foe the Brooklyn Nets. Get ready for Game 1 on Monday.