Despite mounting injuries, long road trips and quality opponents, the Denver Nuggets have continued to be successful. However, they faced a very tough challenge with the Toronto Raptors, aka the team with the best record in the NBA, in their arena. Toronto was also facing a rash of injuries though which worked in the Nuggets favor. They were without star point guard Kyle Lowry, promising young forward Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, a sixth man of the year candidate last season. Nonetheless the Nuggets and Raptors each had their star players in Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard respectively and they led to an entertaining back and forth affair that went down to the very final moments. Jamal Murray proved to be the difference down the stretch for Denver as he and Jokic led the Nuggets to an impressive victory.
The Nuggets offense opened the game not doing their best but they were getting enough points to keep it close. Toronto took advantage of some early mistakes but they also missed several good looks themselves. The Nuggets were playing with plenty of energy, but they just struggled to cash in their opportunities. The fist half of the first quarter had a very grind it out feel to it which would be foreshadowing for the whole game. The Nuggets made the Raptors work on every possession, their defense early on was outstanding. All the injuries to the Raptors made them play small which allowed Michael Malone to go with a Jokic + 4 wings lineup. Denver used that configuration to switch effectively and had the speed to recover on rotations. The small ball also gave Denver’s offense new life with their ability to run and space the floor. The Nuggets went extra small to close out the quarter when Malone subbed out Jokic for Trey Lyles but the ploy backfired. The Raptors went on a 5-0 mini run to close the gap and tie the game at 23 all after one.
Denver kept their small ball bench lineup out to start the second half and it continued to struggle. Toronto reeled off a 7-0 run to start the second quarter and give themselves the lead. Coach Malone took a timeout an re-inserted Mason Plumlee into the game. He had an immediate impact, first assisting Monte Morris on a kick out, then finishing a dump off from Lyles followed by pulling the chair on Greg Monroe to force a turnover. That sequence sparked a 10-0 run (finished by none other than a Swaggy 3) by the Nuggets to re-take the lead and force Nick Nurse to take a timeout. Toronto pushed back with two quick buckets and then the defenses tightened back up. Jokic checked back in to get the offense rolling again for Denver. He made his presence known with six straight points for the Nuggets including a nice move around Ibaka and a tough finish on a reverse layup. Kawhi responded again for the Raptors and the Nuggets shooting went cold which let Toronto push back in front. They closed out the quarter on an 11-0 run and that gave them an eight point lead going into the half.
Torrey Craig opened the second half with a pair of threes to kick start the Nuggets offense. Kawhi was finding ways to score but for the most part Denver had re-found their defensive groove. Once again the Raptors weren’t finding anything in the way of good looks. Jokic grabbed a pair of buckets to lead a 15-6 scoring run which brought the Nuggets back within four. The Raptors pushed back with their starters leading a 7-2 run. Denver wasn’t able to respond and calls weren’t going their way which was getting the team frustrated. Behind Kawhi the Raptors were able to push their lead to double digits and force the Nuggets to take a timeout. They responded with a good sequence out of the TO where Jokic was able to get an and-1 and then Juancho followed up with getting fouled on a three point shot (he made two of three). The Nuggets lineup of Jokic-Juancho-Beasley-Murray-Morris was effective closing out the quarter and chipping away at the Raptors lead but they had a number of occasions where they got a good look from three and weren’t able to convert. Jokic snuck in a little floater right before the end of the quarter and after three the Nuggets trailed by just four points.
Denver kept pushing to open the fourth quarter while the Raptors missed on some golden opportunities. Murray had finally come to life and after he hit a three to cap a 7-0 run to start the quarter the Nuggets finally regained the lead. The Raptors had gone absolutely ice cold from the floor. Some of that was Denver’s defense and some of it was just incredibly bad luck. Murray was heating up on the Nuggets side, he hit a nice mid-range fade away and then buried a three to get Pepsi Center on their feet as the Nuggets lead grew to eight. Kawhi shook free for a dunk around the 7:45 mark to finally get Toronto a bucket in the quarter. Denver’s defense got a bit lax and they gave up some open looks from the perimeter but they were keeping the Raptors at arm’s length. They weren’t able to put Toronto away though. Murray had cooled off and missed a couple shots which gave Toronto another opportunity to close back in with the quarter going into the final three minutes. They pulled within five and it was clear the game was going to come down to half court execution. Toronto naturally worked the ball to Kawhi and the Nuggets chose to double and even triple team him. The strategy paid off when O.G. Anunoby missed a wide open corner three and Jokic knocked down a floater at the other end to put Denver back up by seven. The Nuggets still had trouble getting that nail in the coffin but time was rapidly running out for the Raptors. With 50 seconds left Joker got an offensive rebound and a put back which finally was enough to put Toronto away. Denver gets a huge win 95-86
Best matchup: Monte Morris vs Delon Wright
Some special circumstances set up this matchup with the Raptors missing their starting and backup point guards and Malone going to Craig early to play small forward which meant Murray shifted to shooting guard. At the beginning of the season this certainly wouldn’t be a matchup you would have ever thought would be a big part of any game but both Wright and Morris played admirably in big minutes tonight. It cannot be overstated how huge Morris has been for the Nuggets. He’s gone from emergency point guard to back up point guard to now playing starter minutes and being in the game in the final moments. Perhaps Wright will be able to parlay his own opportunity into a bigger role just like Morris has.
Key thing I noticed: Jamal Murray is a gamer
The night did not start out well for Jamal at all. He was a complete non-factor on offense and was getting outplayed by his counterpart in Danny Green through three quarters (which wasn’t saying much). When the Nuggets needed it the most though, Murray came through in a big way. His run at the start of the fourth quarter carried Denver’s momentum from the third and made the Raptors pay for their ice cold shooting in the start of the fourth. That run was pretty much the ultimate difference maker in the game. Jokic is clearly the star of the team but Murray showed tonight what we saw so much last season, he can be the closer. It’s been a long time since Denver had a go to guy in the half court offense during close games and having Murray available for that role cannot be understated.
Closing thought: What a win
Look, I get that Toronto was missing a lot of key pieces but there’s no way a Nuggets fan is giving anyone that excuse with the current situation their own team has. Bottom line is tonight the Raptors had a chance to put the Nuggets away more than once and they couldn’t do it. The way the Nuggets fought all the way back late in the third and early in the fourth was impressive. Once again it was the defense that led the charge for them. This team continues to prove every night why they are different and its a whole lot of fun to watch.