They came, they saw, they did the opposite of conquer.
After the feel-good vibes of going toe-to-toe with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors before picking up wins against the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, the Toronto Raptors fell flat in Denver, losing 129-111 to the Nuggets.
Kitchener, Ontario native Jamal Murray led all scorers with 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field in just 21 minutes while Nikola Jokic orchestrated at his best, finishing with eight points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists.
An 82 game season is filled with peaks and valleys, and for a team building a new identity on offense while establishing a new group of young players, nights like this are bound to happen.
What will frustrate most, though, is the lack of focus and intensity that was apparent right from the opening tip. Serge Ibaka had no answer for Paul Millsap early on, allowing two 3-pointers, before fouling the former Atlanta All-Star on his third attempt from deep.
The Nuggets opened up a 13-4 lead at that point, and never looked back. The advantage ballooned to 34-19 after the first quarter, as the Raptors failed to react quickly enough to back cuts, close out to shooters, or even rebound when those shots ricocheted off the rim. Denver led by as many as 36 in the third quarter, finally forcing head coach Dwane Casey’s hand into waving the white flag.
With Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas returning to the rotation after being held out due to injury, the onus was on Casey to find minutes for players that had largely left a positive impression through the opening six games.
Casey decided to reward the hot hand, with Lucas Nogueira receiving 22 meaningful minutes after his 17 point, nine rebound, five block night against the Blazers, before Jakob Poeltl filled in when the game was out of reach.
The decision was puzzling to many, as Poeltl has arguably been the Raptors’ best defender to this point, providing rim protection and a nimble big man who can ably contest pick-and-rolls. He has also been excellent on the offensive glass, and could have bought the team a few extra possessions on a night they could have desperately used them.
From Casey’s perspective, it’s possible he thought Nogueira could do an apt job defensively while also helping kick-start an offense that was struggling to find a rhythm. It wasn’t the case. Nogueira finished a -22 in his 16 minutes while only grabbing a single rebound.
To be frank, there weren’t many rebounds available, as the Nuggets shot 53.4 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three on 32 attempts. It was surprising to see the lack of defensive effort, especially after the Raptors held the Lakers and Blazers to 92 and 85 points respectively, including a second quarter against the Blazers where they restricted Portland to just one field-goal make.
This is possibly the ill-effects of the fifth game of a six-game West coast road trip in high altitude, and players being thrown out of whack with the forced rotation changes after the return of their starting frontcourt.
The Raptors will have a chance to turn things around against the Utah Jazz on Friday night.