DENVER — The Toronto Raptors finally got an up-close look at the Denver Nuggets‘ Nikola Jokic, the Serbian star who plays like Steve Nash — if the Canadian Hall of Fame point guard was a giant, lumbering centre who averaged a triple-double and was the favourite to win his third consecutive MVP award.
At the very least, it was memorable, though not for the reasons you might expect.
With Jokic and Jamal Murray of Kitchener, Ont., supported by a deep cast of quality role players, the Nuggets are positioning themselves to bring an NBA championship to the foothills of the Rockies for the first time in franchise history.
But the Raptors have goals of their own, as modest as they might be in comparison. Improving to .500, for example, or finishing in seventh or eighth place in the Eastern Conference so they can have the opportunity to host a win-and-you’re-in game (into the playoffs) in the play-in tournament.
In that context, the Raptors played a superb game Monday against the Nuggets and defended Jokic as well as is likely possible and were unfortunate to come up empty, even if Murray shook loose in the second half and drove Denver’s offence in the final moments.
“We played great. We’ve been playing well,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “We play like that, and we can beat anybody, doesn’t matter if it’s home or away or where they are in the standings, et cetera. Probably outplayed ’em, to be honest, and think we executed very, very well.”
The end of the game will likely be remembered for an officiating controversy — how controversial depends on your perspective — that may have been the difference in what ended up being a 118-113 loss that could have easily ended up in the Raptors’ favour. Instead of evening their record for the first time since the opening weeks of the season, the Raptors slipped back to 32-34. Rather than pull ahead of Atlanta for eighth place, they remain in ninth.
Toronto led by six with six minutes to play before Denver finished the game on a 23-10 run — 13-2 in the last 2:15 — and pulled out the win after the Raptors were in control for most of the night, wasting an otherwise excellent effort from the visitors against one of the NBA’s best teams. The Western Conference-leading Nuggets improved to 46-19 and 30-4 on their home court.
But the turning point of the game wasn’t a thread-the-needle pass from Jokic for a crucial basket or dagger from Murray. Instead, the game tipped on a pair of foul calls in the final 50 seconds. First, what looked like a shooting foul on a Scottie Barnes drive was challenged by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone and successfully overturned, taking away a pair of free throws that could have put Toronto up by one.
Then, on the next possession, more controversy: after Jakob Poeltl was called for a loose-ball foul, Barnes was very suddenly ejected by crew chief Scott Foster. The result was three free throws by the Nuggets, who made them all and were suddenly up by four with 28.3 seconds to play.
There are two issues. Nurse felt strongly that the first Barnes call should never have been reversed (the ruling was that Jokic hit Barnes’ hand and the ball, so not a foul per NBA rules, according to the officials) and was even more convinced that the call on Poeltl was dubious at best.
“I think it was a great game that looked like it was coming down to a great ending,” said Nurse. “It’s a little bit unfortunate that we didn’t get to see that ending, at all. Especially on the one Scottie got ejected on. There was absolutely nothing there — nothing. Scottie wasn’t involved. They called the foul on Jak. There was nothing there.”
Well, except that Barnes was involved, though he’s adamant his comments weren’t aimed directly at the referees: “I was just saying something to myself (after the call on Poeltl) and I guess he took offence to it and just threw me out of the game. I was just talking to myself.”
According to Foster, via a pool reporter, “He (Barnes) was ejected on one technical foul because he used verbiage that … directly questioned the integrity of the crew.”
Interpret that as you might.
The Raptors couldn’t muster another score in the final seconds and the Nuggets left the floor happy.
“A lot of things went our way down the end of the game,” acknowledged Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
The Raptors could only be happy with how they played, the ending aside.
“I thought it was a very good game, for the most part. High intensity, high level, they’ve been the best team in the league this year … they’ve got the MVP, I thought we were up to the challenge,” said Fred VanVleet, who finished with 21 points and 14 assists on 5-of-12 shooting to offset five turnovers. “All the way down to a one-point game under a minute and the game just kind of went to shit a little bit.
“It’s tough to see a great game like that get ruined at the end, but we’ve got to find ways to overcome that.”
The Raptors’ defence on Jokic was excellent. He was limited to 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists on just eight field goal attempts — an off night for him — and Toronto used a mix of strong primary defending and aggressive help, led by O.G. Anunoby, to limit the Denver star.
“He worked tirelessly all night,” said Nurse. “It was really impressive.”
“You gotta give O.G. credit, gotta give O.G. a ton of credit,” added VanVleet. “The coaching staff came up with a good game plan to put O.G. on him, he’s had some success over the years of just making it tough. You can’t stop a guy like (Jokic), he’s pretty much unguardable. I thought we showed him a lot of bodies … just trying to make it tough on him.”
Coming into Monday, Jokic was averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 10 assists while shooting 39.8 per cent on his three-point field goals, 67.1 per cent on his two-point attempts and carrying a True Shooting percentage of 70.3. It’s an almost unprecedented combination of efficiency and shot creation and the main reason — along with the Nuggets’ record — that he’s always in the forefront of the MVP conversation.
The Raptors got an excellent performance from their own centre, as it was Poeltl (18 points, nine rebounds, four assists) who kept Toronto’s offence humming down the stretch. He scored three layups in a two-minute spurt, each assisted by smart, sharp reads by his teammates that had Jokic nodding in respect. The last put Toronto up six with 3:26 to play.
But Jokic then hit Aaron Gordon on a backdoor cut for a dunk and then freed up Murray for a triple before a drive by the Nuggets’ Canadian guard, who finished with 24 points and five assists on 9-of-14 shooting, pulled Denver within one with 1:32 to play. The rest of the game’s scoring came at the free throw line, fair or not, and we know how that worked out for Toronto.
The Raptors led by five at the end of the first quarter, by three at halftime and by five again to start the fourth quarter. They were there, poised to escape Colorado with what would have been their signature win of the season.
All five of the Raptors’ starters were in double figures as they shot 50 per cent from the floor and 10-of-27 from deep. The Nuggets shot 50 per cent and 13-of-33 from deep.
The Raptors head to Los Angeles, where they will play the Clippers on Wednesday and the Lakers Friday in games that will have playoff implications for all the teams. They can feel positively about the level they are playing at, if not the results.
“I feel like this is one we definitely should have won. They made some tough plays down the stretch, Jamal Murray hit a couple of tough shots and they made their free throws down the stretch,” said Barnes, who finished with 12 points and nine rebounds. “This is one we definitely would like to have. We played good for most of the game; at the end, we gave it up. We just got to be better and finish out the game.”
The Raptors have found ways to lose games all season. In Denver against one of the best teams in the league, they found a new one.