In broad strokes, there’s more to be pleased about with the Toronto Raptors since their key players have returned from injury.
Even though the team continues to be mired with a losing record and on the outskirts of the playoff picture, there are simple joys in Pascal Siakam whipping a spin move into the paint or OG Anunoby drilling a wing three. We’ve also got found money in Kyle Lowry, who was all but gone at the trade deadline, showing up for games like tonight in lime green sneakers, rolling back the clock with first half threes and beautiful set-up passes to big men in the paint.
The harsh reality of this Raptors roster, though, is that there isn’t anything you can count on behind those in the starting lineup. Especially without Chris Boucher and Gary Trent Jr. to anchor any bench minutes, Raptors fans are back to dreading the start of the second and fourth quarters. There’s usually one starter in to prop up four bench players during these periods — a random assortment, usually, based on Nick Nurse’s preference — and Toronto loses those minutes. For how long and by how much has been the decider in games this month; tonight, in the fourth quarter, it was five minutes and... a lot of points.
On the back of a 15-0 run to start the final frame, the Denver Nuggets pulled away — in what was a close game — against the Raptors bench, eventually winning 121-111.
So, who was on the floor for this decisive stretch? Well the tank truthers have plenty of ammunition after tonight, as Nurse decided to go with Malachi Flynn as the bench unit anchor in the fourth quarter. The rookie, starting in place of an injured Fred VanVleet, played alongside DeAndre’ Bembry, Freddie Gillespie, Rodney Hood, and Yuta Watanabe; while Flynn was having the best game of the bunch (16 points, 6-for-9 from the field), this was a disaster on paper and it played out just as expected. After Denver closed their run with three triples just 2:21 into the quarter, Nurse returned to his starting lineup — but it was too late.
It’s a shame too, because this was shaping up to be another fun, competitive outing for Toronto. Every Raptors starter finished the game in double digits, and they were led by another exceptional performance from OG Anunoby.
Scoring 25 points on 8-for-21 shooting, OG was the anchor of the bench unit in the second quarter and performed ably. In fact, he was asked to create his own offense a lot on Thursday, and continued to look comfortable doing so. He got to the line for five free throw attempts (made them all) and even dished three assists.
More good news: Khem Birch scored a career-high 20 points and only missed two of his ten shots. Birch has been the best addition to the Raptors in the second half of the season, just based on how glaring a hole there was at the position before his arrival. The Canadian is providing more than just the basics, though, as he’s quickly built chemistry with Flynn and Pascal Siakam in the pick and roll, and has a knack for cutting into open space for easy buckets. Oh, and he can do this too.
Kyle Lowry also had a performance deserving of the shoes, scoring 20 points and hitting 5-for-10 from three, continuing his scoring from Tuesday’s game against Brooklyn.
The bench, though. We have to talk about the bench. Scoring just 19 points as a unit (led by six from Stanley Johnson), they were easily out-performed by 48 points from a talented, deep Nuggets second unit. There are opportunities for criticism, but it is as simple as a talent discrepancy. With injuries and the roster as built, the drop-off from the starters to the bench is incredibly steep. Rodney Hood minutes feel like throwing out a warm body, while players like DeAndre’ Bembry and Yuta Watanabe haven’t been able to adapt to changing roles throughout the season.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets were able to get solid performances from JaMychael Green (15 points) and newly signed Austin Rivers (11 points). Shaq Harrison was a speed demon, while Paul Millsap rudely took time out of his day to exploit any rotation mistake made by Freddie Gillespie.
Of their starters, the Nuggets were led by Michael Porter Jr., who scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Nikola Jokic had 19 points (8-for-13), 11 boards, and seven assists. The Raptors starters did a pretty good job there, with Siakam and Anunoby seeing the most time on the MVP favourite.
Life doesn’t get easier for the Raptors. They head to Utah for a date with the West’s top team; that game takes place on Saturday night.