TORONTO — Jamal Murray sat at his locker, slumped and dejected after a tough 114-110 loss to the Toronto Raptors. The Denver Nuggets are on the outside looking in to the playoff picture, and the defeat puts them two games behind the Minnesota Timberwolves for the eighth and final West playoff spot with just seven games to play.
The Nuggets have shot themselves in the foot with their road performances, now 13-25 away from the Pepsi Centre which is in stark contrast to their 27-10 home record. They are undoubtedly talented, but their youth still shows in big moments.
“That’s two games in a row where we were just ball-watching,” head coach Mike Malone said after the game. “They (Toronto) had 10 second-chance points in the fourth quarter — TEN — when every possession matters. It’s the same story over and over… Every damn play matters. Right now, we are not playing like every play matters, we’re playing like we have 30 games to go in the season and I cannot explain that, and it’s unacceptable.”
This is the second straight season the Nuggets find themselves battling for a playoff spot this late into the season, but the lessons don’t seem to be getting learned. Instead of peaking at the right time, they have gone 5-7 since an impressive 126-117 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road on March 3, including a couple of embarrassing losses to the tanking Dallas Mavericks (23-51) and Memphis Grizzlies (20-54).
Murray expressed that frustration after the game.
“It was just the simple stuff,” the Kitchener, Ont., native said after the game. “Not running off shooters and not staying connected, giving the other team exactly what they need to make a play. Getting out-rebounded for a second straight game, which we’re not normally good at. We only have seven games left so we have to figure it out and figure it out now.”
Murray struggled in this one, needing 18 shots for his 15 points, but he has delivered more often than not this season. After some early struggles through the first quarter of the season where he averaged just 13.4 points and shot a frigid 25.3 per cent from beyond the arc, he has put up 17.8 points per game and made 42.4 per cent of his 5.7 attempts from downtown. Despite the initial cold start, his head coach believes the recently turned 21-year-old had seen enough over his rookie season to understand it wouldn’t last.
“Experience is the best teacher, and going in, we knew that Jamal — being a 20-year-old starting point guard in the NBA — he was going to have his hands full,” Malone said before the game. “He’s going to have nights where he looks like the player we envision him being and others where he looks like a 20-year-old. I think Jamal has done a great job continuing to develop, get better, and I think the biggest area is just being more consistent. That’s the biggest challenge all young players have, consistency, and he’s getting better at that as well.”
Another guy who has brought the consistency is Saskatoon, Sask., native Trey Lyles. The 22-year-old has averaged 10.4 points and 4.9 rebounds this season, but put up his most impressive performances when the team needed him after the wrist injury that put free-agent signing Paul Millsap out of commission for over three months.
Over 30 games in December and January, Lyles averaged 14.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, shot 51.1 per cent from the field and 43.3 per cent from the three-point line. His own teammate was extremely complimentary of how he helped them stay afloat.
“He’s done a great job spacing the floor and rebounding the ball on a consistent basis,” Murray said. “He’s important because he’s a matchup problem, teams can’t switch on him whether it be the guard or the big and it gives a lot of problems for other teams.”
Wilson Chandler, one of the veteran members of this Nuggets team, was thrilled when the team swung the trade to get Lyles.
“I liked him when he was in Kentucky, but also in Utah,” the 10-year veteran said. “He always had good games against us. I’m a big fan of his, very versatile, can shoot and finish around the rim. He can handle the ball, too.”
Lyles had a better night against the Raptors than his Canadian counterpart, finishing with 13 points, five rebounds and two blocks, and connecting on three of his four long-ball attempts.
“Just took my shots when they came to me,” Lyles said after the game. “Didn’t force anything, tried to stick with the game plan. Stay aggressive and try the way I can.”
A group of guys who have imposed their will for most of this season, to the surprise of most, is the Raptors bench unit. After a forgettable night against the L.A. Clippers, the bench mob looked very much like themselves in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 90-82, they went on a 15-2 run made possible by everyone involved, save for C.J. Miles. Pascal Siakam was blowing by Nikola Jokic, Jakob Poeltl was dunking on Paul Millsap, Fred VanVleet was making it rain from beyond the arc, and Delon Wright was wreaking havoc on both ends.
Poeltl deserves special mention here, recovering exceedingly well after picking up four quick fouls in the first half and being forced to sit. He finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, and was the main reason for the Nuggets’ rebounding woes.
“He played great,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “Intensity, he was locked in, moving his feet, not using his hands, but I was really proud the way he played. It was a great bounce back for him. He did a good job at not taking negative steps on (Nikola) Jokic, which was killing us in the first half.”
It’s hard to leave Jokic out of this, as the Serbian was spectacular with 29 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block. He added three 3-pointers and was a perfect 4-for-4 at the charity stripe, too.
For as long as he was able to keep the Nuggets in the game and seemingly in line for the win, though, it may have just been the case of a team running out of steam on the second night of a back-to-back. They were in Philadelphia the night before and were dismantled 123-104.
For the Raptors, they’ll be relieved to have some much needed rest. They’ve just completed a horrid stretch in which they’ve gone 10-3 in just 22 days. At 55-20, they now need to go at least 5-2 over their final stretch to reach the 60-win mark and add another feather in the cap of arguably the franchise’s greatest regular season.