After riding a 15-game win streak for the bulk of January and the opening of February, the Toronto Raptors have won a mere two of five not-so difficult games since. Most recently, Toronto is coming off of a disappointing loss to the Charlotte Hornets, in one of their most discombobulated games of the season. Loose balls were coming at a discount, Toronto shot an abysmal 34.7% from the field including 23.3% from deep, they failed to score over 100 points for just the 9th time this season, and tallied their 3rd loss of the season in which they allowed their opponent to score fewer than 100 points, not to mention that the six-foot-six Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was once again being forced to play as the team’s starting centre. The loss isn’t necessarily upsetting because it’s a loss to the Hornets – that’s become an annual tradition of this perennially contending Raptors team – but unsatisfying because of the way in which it ended.
The Raptors had possession of the ball with a fresh shot clock and 29 seconds remaining on the game clock. Norman Powell – who was 4/9 from behind the arc in the game bricked a wide-open three which would have virtually sealed the game, and seconds after securing an offensive rebound, Kyle Lowry – who is a career 36.6% shooter from deep followed in Powell’s footsteps, which gave the Hornets possession with 2.1 seconds to go.
Had the Hornets won in clutch fashion – at least shadowing Jeremy Lamb did to the Raptors last year, the pill might have been easier to swallow. Rather, the contest concluded in such a way that would resemble losing on a serve in a Tennis match in the 5th set – by an inexplicable foul called on Hollis-Jefferson. Ultimately, the foul call gifted Devonte’ Graham a free throw to put the Hornets up one point with 2.1 seconds remaining, and cost the Raptors the game.
At the end of the day, it’s just a regular season game. Toronto still sits second in the Eastern Conference, half a game ahead of the Boston Celtics, and firmly in the top three, with a five game lead over the fourth-seeded Miami Heat.
Last night’s loss wrapped up the 8th and final home game of the month. To start the new month, the Raps have a challenging five-game Western Conference road trip. With Norman Powell finally back in the lineup to provide a scoring lift off the bench, while Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are both hopeful to return as early as possible, this eternally depleted Raptors squad will be a healthy Marc Gasol away from a full rotation, with The Playoffs right around the corner. With the momentum of this team in the balance, a hot stretch of games away from home could ignite some confidence in this Raptors squad which would carry throughout the rest of the season, and maybe even be a difference-maker come playoff time. The first order of business; the Denver Nuggets.
Tomorrow’s matchup between the West’s second-seeded Nuggets and the East’s second-seeded Raptors will be the first time that these two new-look teams have met since December 16th, 2018, when Kawhi Leonard dropped 29 points and ripped 14 boards. After Denver’s surprising postseason effort in 2019 and the drastic roster changes that competing teams in the West made last summer, Denver was heavily overlooked as a contender. After a slow start to the season, Nikola Jokic is again playing like arguably the best centre in the NBA. Kitchener’s Jamal Murray is enjoying what’s easily the best season of his career, and has blossomed into a versatile offensive star, while role players including Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap, Will Barton, and Michael Porter Jr. have all contributed in ways bigger than what was originally expected of them.
Denver has one of the most balanced offenses in the league, which in part can be attributed to their depth, but also due to the fact that nobody on the team (including Jokic or Murray) is a dominant enough offensive player able to take over a game and drop 30 points on any given night. This balance has ultimately led to them ranking 20th in the league in points per game, however they’re still a long, athletic, young team who plays good defense, and ranks 8th in the league in opponent points per game, and 8th in the league in opponent fastbreak points per game.
With Gasol already out, handling Nikola Jokic’s size inside will not be easy. That’s a job which will be made umpteen times harder if Ibaka is unable to go too. Prior to the All-Star break, the Raptors were able to get away with a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves who employed Karl Anthony-Towns at the 5 in a matchup against Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but Towns simply refused to take advantage of his mismatch.
Jokic seems unlikely to do the same, if given the opportunity. Weighing 250 pounds and standing seven feet tall, he has a six inch and a 35 pound advantage over Hollis-Jefferson. Even with Nurse’s willingness to experiment with the most outlandish tactics, there are some things which cannot be game planned around – one of which being size. If you pack the paint on Jokic; Denver has shooters. If you play a zone; Jokic is an incredible passer and will slice dimes through the teeth of the defense. If you throw a double team at Jokic inside; he’ll take advantage and find the open man – or he may just decide to go up and try to earn a couple of his 4.2 free throw attempts per game. There’s a reason why the Nuggets hold the fifth best record in the NBA, and why Jokic has already been named an All-Star twice in his young five-year career.
In addition to the Serbian Star feasting inside against Hollis-Jefferson, Jokic would surely punish the Raptors on the glass too. Currently, Denver ranks 5th in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game, which is spearheaded by Jokic’s 2.4. That’s a sour stat for Raptors fans to look at, given that Toronto ranks 29th in the league in opponent offensive rebounds per game. Clearly, one can expect Nuggets rebounding dominance to be a theme throughout tomorrow night’s contest, and it would only be exaggerated if the Raptors are devoid of both their centres. What’s even more discouraging for the North is that Denver is exceptional at converting these extra possessions into points, ranking 6th in the league in second chance points.
The situation inside the paint shapes up to be icky for tomorrow night, however there is some relief in the fact that Denver ranks in the bottom half of the league in three-point-percentage. Conversely, they have the 5th lowest three-point rate (ratio of threes attempted to twos attempted), but if Nick Nurse can find a way to bait the Nuggets into attempting more threes than they typically do, that would give Jokic fewer opportunities to dominate inside, while also leading to longer rebounds and hopefully giving the Raptors a chance to limit Denver’s second chance points.
Ultimately, the Raptors’ league-leading defense may struggle to hold the mile-high city within a desirable scoring limit, however with Norman Powell back in the lineup, the Raptors will look to get their shooting back on track and outscore Denver to win the game.
The key matchup for tomorrow night’s game (aside from Jokic and whoever is tasked with guarding him) should be between the two star point guards: Kyle Lowry, and Jamal Murray. This season, Lowry is averaging 19.2 points, 7.7 assists, and 4.8 rebounds, while Murray is averaging career-highs in points and assists, at 18.7, and 4.8 respectively, while also grabbing 3.9 boards per game. While neither are the best players on their team (debatable in Lowry’s case), they are the clutchest players on their respective teams, and assuming and the game remains reasonably close throughout the fourth quarter, these are the two guys who should be going at each other punch-for-punch.
Expect the Nuggets to come out angry after head coach Mike Malone publicly called his team “soft” following a 29-point loss to the Clippers last night. Similarly, expect the Raptors to be on their A-game, tolerating absolutely no crap after such a frustrating finish in their last game as well. This is about as heavyweight as the matchups get in the NBA.