A compliment, to be sure, on a night where the Raptors played a forgettable game through three quarters before mounting a late comeback — only to be felled by a frustrating finish.
Hey, they can’t all be hits.
Monday was shaping up to be a good day for the Raptors. As the team strengthened its claim as the NBA’s best through 25 games, carrying a nine-game win streak and 20-4 record into its tilt versus the Nuggets, two key pieces to its best start in franchise history, Kawhi Leonard and head coach Nick Nurse, were recognized for their achievements.
Nurse — in his first month as an NBA bench boss, no less — earned Coach of the Month honours. “I feel like I’ve been given a Lamborghini,” Nurse said shortly before tip-off, downplaying his own contributions. He’s done a good job of utilizing the many moveable parts on his roster and has coached the Raps through everything from double-digit comebacks, blowout wins, winning streaks, losing streaks, and everything in between, and – Monday’s result aside – has the team as well positioned as he could have hoped this early into the season.
As for Leonard, he’s been absolutely as advertised, and has already begun to ratchet up his game as he gets more comfortable playing in Nurse’s systems and puts last season’s injury woes behind him. Leonard was named Player of the Week in the East after averaging just shy of 30 points per game over the past seven days, along with nine rebounds, highlighted by his 37-point heroics in the Raptors’ overtime win against the Golden State Warriors last Friday.
Leonard was stellar again on Monday, leading the Raptors with 27 points and nailing what could have been the game-winner with seven seconds remaining in a weird, wild finish at Scotiabank Arena. (More on that in a moment.)
Of course, the Nuggets are no slouches themselves. Denver holds first place in the West and headed into Monday with a Player of the Week of its own in veteran forward Paul Millsap, who averaged 21.5 points, 10 boards and three assists over the past week as Denver went 2-0, featuring a win against Portland and a 32-point blowout against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. (Remember when Millsap, annually linked to the Raptors in trade rumours, was considered the potential answer to unlocking the Raptors’ potential, the long-coveted “third star” to accompany Lowry and DeMar DeRozan? Toronto’s start to the season and this new-look nucleus sure makes that seem like an eternity ago.)
On a night where Canadian breakout guard Jamal Murray entered the building with the spotlight on him, the Nuggets’ biggest star was undoubtedly centre Nikola Jokic. The 23-year-old seven-footer’s unorthodox game and stellar playmaking out of the centre spot — he had 10 assists by halftime — was on full display. Jokic fuelled a Nuggets surge toward the end of the second quarter, his passing and quick-fire decision-making infectious as Denver zipped the ball around and caught the Raptors off-guard, taking a 12-point lead into halftime.
“I was kind of hoping we’d be able to disrupt [Jokic] with a little bit more pressure,” Nurse said after the game. “He just seemed to handle it. We worked hard on him, we tried to put him under some duress with the ball but it just didn’t faze him.”
Jokic’s poise down the stretch, coupled with his unreal skill-set left no questions as to why he’s so highly regarded. And it all starts with his ability to find teammates.
“He’s a great passer, man. He makes the game so much easier for everyone around him,” said Nuggets centre Mason Plumlee, who was on the receiving of more than one big-to-big alley-oop. “He sees the floor so well. I don’t know what his line was like tonight, but I’d imagine he got a lot of assists.”
Fifteen, to be exact, to go along with a team-high 23 points and 11 rebounds, and several clutch makes down the stretch.
Meanwhile, Leonard stepped up for the Raptors. “With a player like that,” said Gary Harris, one of the NBA’s best wing defenders and the Nuggets’ leading scorer, who left Monday’s game with a hip injury, “he’s so talented offensively that you’re not going to stop him.”
It was true, and Leonard couldn’t be stopped, scoring 16 in the first half. The same couldn’t be said of his teammates. Kyle Lowry, for example, was scoreless in the opening half and finished the game with just five points on 1-of-7 shooting — but did manage 11 assists. Serge Ibaka made some key baskets in the second half, and Pascal Siakam chipped in with 14 points, but secondary scoring was hard to come by for the Raps. A 26 per cent three-point shooting night for Toronto didn’t help its cause, either.
And then there was that frenzied finish.
It began with a clutch jumper from Leonard, driving right and pulling up for an elbow jumper to put the Raptors up one with 55 seconds remaining. Jokic responded with a floater on the next possession. Danny Green got a pair of chances to re-gain the lead — the first a forced jumper, the second, after a brief loose-ball scramble, a clean look from deep.
Jokic grabbed the rebound and the Nuggets split their ensuing free throws, setting the stage for a final Toronto possession with a chance to win the game. With 12 seconds on the clock, the Raptors inbounded the ball and Leonard bounded toward the basket, turned, jumped, and faded over two defenders for a jumper. Swish. Tie game.
But with seven seconds remaining, Denver still had a chance to steal a win. That’s when the foul call happened. Once the ball was inbounded, Ibaka was promptly called for a foul on Jokic, tying up the big man as he tried to run off a screen. It sent the Nuggets to the free-throw line and, because the foul occurred away from the ball, meant Denver still had possession.
A crucial turning point, and a surprising call given the weight of that possession, but not exactly an unexpected one if you saw Ibaka holding onto Jokic before the play even began.
As they waited for the ball to be inbounded, Jokic — twice — dramatically shoved Ibaka’s arms off him and lift his hands in the air while looking toward the referees to pay attention. They did just that, and when the ball was inbounded Ibaka’s handsy coverage of Jokic got the Raptors centre called for the foul. Jokic nailed his free throw, and when the Nuggets inbounded the ball once more to their big man and he was fouled, this time intentionally, he calmly sunk both free throws to seal the win.
After the game Nurse said he’d have to give the foul in-question a second look before commenting on it. Ibaka, and Lowry, made quick exits following the game and didn’t speak to the media.
“It was the right call,” said Plumlee. “I respect that, typically in the NBA, you let guys play down the stretch. But if you’re going to call it the other three quarters, you’ve gotta call it in the fourth. You have to be able to run on offence, and if there’s no freedom of movement, where you gonna go?
“And [Ibaka] knows better.”
It was the kind of play you see all the time, a veteran player using whatever option is at his disposal to slow the opponent down. Unfortunately for the Raptors, this time the hammer came down from the officials, who were front and centre in a heated and chippy finish.
So, a tough loss for the Raptors, even if they fought back in a game that seemed on the verge of getting out of hand early.
Monday’s game represented the first game in what will undoubtedly be the Raptors’ toughest stretch so far this season. After Denver, the Raptors go on to face the Philadelphia 76ers, and then after a contest versus the Brooklyn Nets on Friday will face, in order, the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Warriors — this time with Steph Curry expected to be in the lineup — Portalnd Trail Blazers, the Nuggets once more in Denver, and then they’ll return home for a game against the Indiana Pacers. Brooklyn aside, those teams have a combined 103-58 record.
It doesn’t get easier from here for the Raptors. On to the next one.