Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
That famous line was the unofficial motto of the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors and surely rang true for the reigning champions tonight.
The Denver Nuggets answered every push by the Raptors in pulling out a 113-104 victory at Scotiabank Arena. Nikola Jokic overcame a slow start — by his incredible standards — and led the way for the Denver with 31 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks.
All 5 Nuggets starters scored in double figures. Kitchener native, Jamal Murray, who received a tribute video for becoming the 9th Canadian to win an NBA title, chipped in with 20 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
Scottie Barnes led the way for Toronto from start to finish. The former Rookie of the Year matched Jokic’s output with 30 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 block. He was aggressive from the opening tip and oftentimes looked like the only Raptor ready for the marquee matchup.
Correction, Pascal Siakam also came out with the appropriate intensity. Spicy P had a strong first half — he and Scottie accounted for 34 of the Raptors’ 44 points via points and assists — finishing with 18 points and 5 rebounds.
Before the game, Darko Rajakovic spoke about physicality and his team followed through early on. On the first few possessions, Toronto appeared to be targeting Murray. Scottie Barnes scored the first basket of the game through a post-up of Murray. Pascal Siakam scored an and-one on the following possession while driving at Murray. Siakam scored on another driving layup over Murray a few plays later.
Eventually, Denver’s defense figured out how to slow down Toronto’s aggression and tightened up on the defensive end. The Raptors would end up shooting an unflattering 37.5/12.5/33.3 from the field. Unsurprisingly, they trailed 290-20 at the end of the first.
If the first quarter was characterized by Toronto’s poor shooting percentages, the second quarter was all about losing focus altogether. Malachi Flynn threw a lazy pass that was easily picked off by Julian Strawther, who then took it the other way for a breakaway layup. Gary Trent Jr. rebounded a missed triple by Jamal Murray, then took the ball across half-court, completely forgetting about Murray, who stole from behind and drove for an uncontested layup. Dennis Schroder dribbled the ball right into Michael Porter Jr.’s hands, leading to a transition dunk by Aaron Gordon. OG Anunoby, who has typically been a defensive thorn in Jokic’s side, was caught ball-watching Jokic as Murray cut behind him for an easy layup. There are actually even more examples — all from the second quarter alone — but you get the picture.
The only bright spots in the first half were Barnes and Siakam. With All-Star voting officially open, the dynamic duo appeared to be the only ones mentally prepared to battle the champs. Barnes scored 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting (8-for-9 from inside the arc), while Siakam added 12 points on 5-for-11 shooting.
By the end of two quarters, Darko’s pre-game plea for more physicality was only answered by the Nuggets as Denver outscored Toronto 40-24 in the paint.
The Raptors came out of the break with the intent to push the pace getting 5 early points in transition. Toronto would also get 14 points in the paint in the first half of the third quarter. However, every time the Raptors tried to make a run, the Nuggets would respond.
After cutting the lead down to 14 with under a minute left in the quarter, Reggie Jackson hita difficult floater. Siakam then drove into 3 Nuggets, turned the ball over, leading to a Peyton Watson breakaway dunk.
More than anything, the reason why Denver withstood every Toronto attempt reduce the lead to single digits was because of Jokic. The two-time MVP, who was held to 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in the first half, accumulated 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 assist in the third quarter alone! On one sequence, Jokic had THREE offensive rebound/putback attempts, eventually leading to a lay-in.
Denver entered the 4th quarter with a 90-75 lead.
With seemingly no answer to slowing down the Nuggets, Darko started the 4th quarter in the most unconventional of fashions, trotting out an OG + bench lineup.
Down 15 against the all-bench Nuggets lineup, playing OG+4 bench guys feels like a white flag— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 21, 2023
In the ultimate you-never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get box-of-chocolates quarter, that unit outscored the Nuggets 13-5 over the first five and a half minutes of the fourth quarter, chopping the lead down to 96-88. After a timeout, and with the most of the starters back in the game, a Precious Achiuwa corner three would trim the lead even further down to five.
As defending champions normally do, the Nuggets responded one more time, scoring 12 points over the next five possessions and pushing the lead back up to 12.
Achiuwa played arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block. Malachi Flynn hit a pair of rainbow threes to keep Toronto afloat. Chris Boucher chipped in with 5 points and 7 rebounds. All three of these reserves were the only Raptors to finish with a positive +/-.
The plucky Raptors continued to fight over the final minutes. With the Nuggets playing keepaway in the final minute and the shot clock about to expire, Jokic drained what could only be described as a push-shot-three that gave Denver a 111-100 lead and caused approximately 17,000 people to collectively head for the exits.
The Christmas break can’t come soon enough as the Raptors next visit Nick Nurse, Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and the Sixers in Philadelphia on Friday. As if playing one MVP wasn’t enough, Toronto must quickly figure out how to slow down the league’s leading scorer — and getting victory number one over their former coach!