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Raptors lift their game, but Nuggets close strong to win, 118-113

Thriving on offense and slowing an MVP frontrunner on defense, Toronto played one of their most complete games of the season tonight. It wasn’t quite enough.

Toronto Raptors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Even in a season where consistency has been the issue, the highs have still been high for the Toronto Raptors. Since acquiring old pal Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline, the wins and feel good vibes are starting to break through too — this is not the same team that battled angst and inner turmoil through December and January.

On Monday night, poised to get back to .500 for the first time since December 9, it looked like this group was about to break new ground.

Facing the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets, who come equipped with the MVP frontrunner in Nikola Jokic, in their gym was a tall task on paper — but the Raptors looked up to the challenge from the opening tip. An early 12-6 lead was a portend of things to come. Toronto shot 50 percent from the field, made ten threes and got double-digit scoring from six players. They won the first and third quarters and OG Anunoby held Jokic to just 17 points on eight shots. They turned the Nuggets over 14 times and led by as many as ten.

They still lost.

Coming back in the late stages of the game, the Nuggets found just enough of an execution edge — along with a dramatic, whistle-filled last two minutes — to beat the Raptors, 118-113. The loss came at a tough time for Toronto, as an Atlanta Hawks loss earlier in the evening left the door open for a jump into the eighth seed. Unfortunately, the Raptors weren’t able to step through the opening.

Though real basketball was played tonight (at a high level too!), we have to talk about how this game finished.

The Nuggets were already making a run as the game hit its last three minutes, but an all-out circus started after Jamal Murray hit a three-pointer with 2:03 left to cut a Raptors six-point lead in half. Neither team ended up making a field goal for the rest of the game; instead, we saw a dramatic tightening of what was otherwise a loose whistle for the rest of the night. A Scott Foster-led crew spent much of proceedings letting physical play go, allowing the Raptors to physically battle Jokic inside on one end, while giving the Nuggets opportunity to do the same to Toronto’s star players on the other. Then, like someone had pulled the plug, the crew started to call everything.

After an unsuccessful coach’s challenge on what should’ve been a no call — Scottie Barnes and Jokic tangling off-ball after a screen — the Nuggets got what looked to be a correct, successful challenge call to go their way on contact created by Barnes shooting over Jokic on the other end. The four-point swing in free throws put the Nuggets up three, and on the next trip down the floor, Jakob Poeltl was called for minor contact under the hoop and Scottie Barnes — who said... something incongruent with flowery adjectives — was called for two technicals, in quick succession, by Foster to get ejected and essentially seal the game. It didn’t look like it was much, truly. See for yourself!

It was a sour way to end what was otherwise a great game. Murray ended up being the hero for Denver, as an explosion of scoring out of halftime kept his team in the game, before two late baskets provided the difference. He finished with a game-high 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Jokic was quiet, but the numbers are always there for Denver’s fulcrum, as he put up a near-triple-double: 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.

The Raptors, meanwhile, showed delicate scoring balance up and down their lineup. Fred VanVleet led the way, and put together one of his best games of the season, even without eye-popping digits. With 21 points and 14 assists, VanVleet showed great court awareness — especially in pick and roll combinations with Poeltl — setting up open shooters and cutters, and adding an occasional hockey assist. The offensive selfishness that tends to plague the Raptors when they’re not engaged was nowhere to be found tonight — and that started with Fred.

Pascal Siakam had 19 points, four rebounds, and four assists, playing heavy minutes to prop up bench units alongside his usual minutes with the starters. Poeltl was also excellent with 18 points, nine rebounds and four assists. His defensive acumen, especially alongside OG Anunoby, made for some truly beautiful sequences on that end of the floor. Nobody in the league is capable of shutting down Jokic, but the Raptors started to write the book on how it can be done. Anunoby was mobile enough to take away his pick and pop game, and both he and Poeltl crowded the paint and made it difficult to find passing lanes. He still found a few, but it was nowhere near the demolition that he tends to show other teams.

Gary Trent Jr. chipped in 13 off the bench (6-for-9 shooting) while Barnes and Anunoby had 12 points a piece. The Raptors were on pace for a 50/40/90 shooting night as a team, but tailed off toward the end, finishing 10-for-27 from deep. Turnovers also proved costly, even though Toronto was only down four in that category. The Nuggets thrive on easy baskets, and each score in transition enlivened a healthy crowd at Ball Arena. The Raptors were up against a great team and the margins were slim. Between the ending and the missed plays on the margin, this one will end up hurting in retrospect.

The Raptors will lick their wounds and continue their road trip on Wednesday, as they take on Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers.