Nikola Jokic had 29 points, 16 rebounds and 8 assists in 40 minutes, but the team saw their starting guards struggle from the floor, with Jamal Murray and Will Barton combining to go 10-33 from the field.
The Raptors had a balanced scoring effort from their squad, with seven players scoring in double figures and riding their league-best bench through the final quarter in the win.
The Raptors came out with their players executing on defense, playing physical by battling through screens and causing the Nuggets to attempt difficult shots. DeMar DeRozan set up his team’s first three baskets, but then Jokic and Millsap combined to bring the Nuggets back to take the lead.
Jokic took a seat, and the reserves started making their way onto the court with the score pretty close. Plumlee made a great defensive play, corralling Kyle Lowry on the sideline after a switch and forcing a turnover. Devin Harris turned the ball over in transition though, and the Raptors were able to capitalize. The Nuggets kept going to Millsap on post-ups, but he knocked in a few in the quarter.
Both teams struggled to shoot the ball, with the Nuggets going seven for 24 in the first quarter, but they were able to keep things close going into the second quarter thanks to the eight free throws they attempted, as well as just one turnover. Jokic had eight rebounds in the first quarter too, including three on the offensive end. A halfcourt heave by Delon Wright gave the Raptors a 25-23 lead, just another case of the Nuggets not getting a lucky bounce.
Delon Wright at the buzzer! pic.twitter.com/YY6gH2X38F— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) March 28, 2018
The second quarter started with a spattering of defensive breakdowns by both teams, with both teams trading 3-pointers. Jokic was in a groove, launching in his catapult 3-pointers, while Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam popped in a few deep shots. CJ Miles had a vicious, old man dunk on Torrey Craig, but Trey Lyles stood up for his teammate with a block on the veteran on the next possession. Lyles had a nice post up on the other end, with Wright looking away for a split second and the Canadian native blowing past him for a two-handed dunk.
One thing that didn’t slip past this dude is that Poeltl picked up four fouls in six minutes, meaning the Raptors had to go to Lucas Nogiera. Poeltl is a bit foul prone, but getting him on the bench is a good thing.
The Nuggets started chucking in threes, and were able to take a seven point lead. A couple poor possessions by Barton let the Raptors find their defensive rhythm, which translated into offensive success for them, and they were able to rally to tie the game. Another miss by Barton gave the Raptors a chance to take the lead, and Serge Ibaka flashed off some veteran footwork to get a basket by the rim. Both teams really went full tilt to finish the quarter, and the Nuggets were able to tie the game up going into halftime at 58 each.
The Nuggets came out strong after halftime, running out to another lead. Millsap dropped in a couple shots, and slipped into a groove, including a sweet dunk over Ibaka. The two starting power forwards started trading metaphorical punches, going at each other on both ends, and the Nuggets had a lead when Jokic checked out after about eight minutes. The Raptors immediately went on a run, taking the lead on a dunk by DeRozan, and after a timeout, Jokic was back on the court.
The heck kind of alleyoop is this pic.twitter.com/yusNso3TW5— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) March 28, 2018
The Nuggets needed Jokic, who helped the Nuggets take a lead into the fourth quarter, 85-82. Both teams battled in the quarter, limiting their turnovers but making big plays on defense to keep things really close. It set the table for an exciting finish, but the Nuggets have to find a way to get Jokic some rest so he’ll be able to execute in the final seven minutes of the game.
Jokic stayed out there to start the fourth quarter, and the Nuggets were able to take an eight point lead with some perimeter jumpers. A couple turnovers gave the Raptors some momentum, and they were right back in it. Jokic ran out of gas, and Fred VanVleet pulled an Isaiah Thomas and just blew past the Nuggets star for an easy layup to give the Raptors a three point lead.
The Raptors ripped off a 12-4 run to take a 100-94 lead, and Malone had to bring Jokic back after a short rest. Murray turned the ball over however, and the Raptors ramped up the physicality of the game, and the Nuggets staggered a step. Jakob Poeltl dunked on Paul Millsap so hard, his silverware rattled in his house back in Denver, in one of the biggest dunks by a Nuggets opponent this season. Siakam picked up his fifth foul, and the Raptors called timeout to let the crowd appreciate that Poeltl dunk.
Denver called timeout with about a minute left, down by 10 points following a putback by Poeltl. The Nuggets had to start fouling, but waited until just 20 seconds remained, and started launching 3-pointers, getting within one possession after Jokic banked in a 3-pointer with 11.5 seconds remaining. Jonas Valanciunas made one of his two free throws, but wisely fouled up four, and Murray missed his 3-point attempt and that was all she wrote.
Jokic was unstoppable. You could tell that he really wanted this game. I’ve never doubted his drive to win, and it was evident tonight that he was willing to do whatever it took to get a victory. He barely rested, and it showed during the fourth quarter when VanVleet cooked him in isolation. Hard to blame him for that, he’s still developing physically and even the best players experience fatigue.
Regardless, he was so great on offense. He had some fantastic passes, he was money with his jumper, and he was facilitating offense like a magician. The Nuggets are so lucky to have him, and they have a bright future with him on the roster.
The guard play - yikes. Devin Harris, Jamal Murray, and Will Barton went 11-38. They missed twelve of their sixteen 3-point attempts. They repeatedly ran into blocked shots, messing up the flow of the offense, and struggled on defense. Murray looked really young out there, and his mistake to NOT FOUL WITH 20 SECONDS LEFT in a situation where every second was important was terrible, especially with how the game ended.
Want to know what Nugglife is? Delon Wright’s 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter was basically the difference in the game. It was early enough that the Nuggets were able to take the lead afterwards, but Wright chucking in a shot from halfcourt, on a possession that started with under two seconds on the clock, is part of the definition of Nugglife. If you can’t handle the Nugglife, get used to it.
Let’s agree to not entirely blame the players too. The Nuggets are a tour de force on offense. The front office has assembled an incredibly talented group of offensive talent, and when they’re cooking, it smells, looks, and tastes amazing.
But then you look at the other half of the court, and see this:
The Nuggets since All-Star break— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 28, 2018
Defensive rating: 27th in league
FG% allowed: 29th
3P% allowed: 30th pic.twitter.com/tz9BkPlPTz
This isn’t solely on the players for not giving enough “effort and energy.” That’s a bullcrap excuse. Is it part of it? Sure! But ignoring that there might also be coaching and personnel factors is irresponsible.
The Nuggets challenges this upcoming offseason stem from their failure to craft a roster that is remains at a top-5 level on offense while improving defensively in the 2017 offseason. They’ll need the coaching staff to implement a scheme that allows the offense to flourish while also corrects some of the glaring defensive issues. Part of that improvement will need to come with personnel changes. Adding players that complement Jokic on defense - guards that can prevent dribble penetration is the key - and creating an environment where the guards can do that (through training and scheme) is paramount.
The mood this season has felt a little dark, I’ll admit. I think it’s in part because the team has been struggling with the same things for three seasons. While the record has improved, the biggest weaknesses with his team have not been corrected. I hope that all of us at Denver Stiffs are able to remember to be positive about the things that are good while also acknowledging that there are still many issues to correct.
If the Nuggets are able to make the playoffs, that would be incredible! It’d be a historic finish to a season, and hopefully mark the beginning of another team that is going to be a feature in the playoffs for years. I would love to be wrong in my prediction that the Nuggets won’t make the playoffs. As a Nuggets fan, I want them to succeed.
But I’ll admit, after this loss? There’s not a lot to believe in.