Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 133-118 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
One — Uphill: This was always going to be a tall order for the Raptors. Not only do they remain shorthanded with Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet all continuing to miss time, not only were they playing in the altitude in Denver, but they were also facing a Nuggets team that was determined to right the ship after their head coach called them out for being “soft” following a 29-point loss. Give the Raptors credit for scrapping as they always do, but they were clearly the second-best team tonight.
Two — Difficult: Pascal Siakam continues to struggle against disciplined defenses, and this was one of his worst outings of the year. Siakam’s jumper abandoned him early on, and it made him entirely predictable. Denver packed the paint, swarmed the post with extra bodies, and Siakam was stuck. On the rare occasions where he got to the rim, he left it soft and short. When he forced it, Siakam would dribble off his foot or commit the turnover. And in the few times where he did fire off a mid-range shot, it was a hard brick. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, as Siakam was determined to make things happen, but it just wouldn’t come off for him. To beat a good team on the road you need your superstar to step up, and Siakam has rarely been a superstar against the top teams in the league.
Three — Productive: What you hope with a game like this is for Siakam to grow from it. His scorching start to the season exaggerated expectations, but the path to becoming a superstar is hardly linear. There will be challenges along the way, and what makes a star in the end is how that player adjusts to them. What we’re seeing with Siakam is that his skillset isn’t reliable enough to produce against elite defenses. If he’s going to operate from the perimeter, then his handle and his jumper need to be sharper. If he’s going to be elite out of the post like Nikola Jokic, then his passing and strength need to improve. Lost amid all the unexpected wins this season is that it was always going to be a developmental year, and what matters at the end isn’t what seed they secure or what milestone they get to, it’s how much Siakam and the rest of the players can add to their games come time for the playoffs.
Four — Mismatch: The Raptors have been able to neutralize just about every first option in the league this season, but stopping Jokic without a viable center is impossible. From the jump, the Raptors struggled to check Jokic, who had his way with every undersized wing the Raptors threw at him. When the double teams and the zone packages came out, Jokic’s otherworldly playmaking became the focus and the Nuggets started raining threes. At one point the Raptors sent all five players to Jokic on the block, and still that wasn’t enough to stop him as Jokic drew a shooting foul.
Five — Unfortunate: To make matters worse, the Nuggets literally couldn’t miss from three as they opened the game shooting 9-of-9 from deep. Granted, they were more manageable from there, but where this game really became impossible was when streaky shooters like Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig combined for five threes. The Raptors had to double Jokic down low, so their only shot was if the Nuggets had a tough night from deep, but instead they shot 18-of-36 from three.
Six — Unbelievable: The only reason the Raptors even had a chance in this game was because OG Anunoby did his best Kawhi Leonard impersonation. Anunoby was a man possessed from start to finish as he scored a career-high 32 points along with seven steals on 12-of-16 shooting from the field. The activity and determination that Anunoby showed on defense was nothing short of All-Defense caliber, as he collected three steals against Jokic in the first half that all resulted in breakaway dunks. Anunoby was also confident with his threes, and a constant threat to finish in the fast break. It’s games like these that excite you about Anunoby’s potential, as he’s doing all this as the second-youngest player on the team.
Seven — Promising: Anunoby can already impact the game as a shutdown defender and as an opportunistic finisher. The next step is for him to become a reliable option in the post, where his strength and athleticism allows him to get to the basket. He buried Jamal Murray on a drive to the rim, and there’s no reason why he can’t do that more often. Siakam’s stock took off when he mastered the post, and for what Anunoby lacks in finesse, he makes up for with power.
Eight — Improved: Norman Powell continues to be the most improved player on the roster. Even though he shot 1-of-6 from three, Powell was still able to score efficiently with 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting thanks to his improved ability to finish. In previous years, Powell was too one-track minded and rushed every shot going downhill, but now there’s a savvy about the way he finishes. He’ll chop his steps going to the rim to avoid contact, there’s the hop-step to create an angle, he’ll take the extra dribble to slide past the contest, he’ll go reverse on the baseline, and there’s even a soft floater in the lane when he can’t get all the way to the cup. It’s no longer an aberration when Powell gets his 20 points, it’s now just become the Norm. (Sorry.)
Nine — Trust: Gasol’s extended absence is a chance for Chris Boucher to prove himself worthy of cracking the playoff rotation, and games like these only deepen the distrust. Boucher was overpowered by a wholly average center in Mason Plumlee, and made costly mistakes with his delayed reads on defense. Offensively, he can make things happen with the occasional three and by going hard to the basket, but it’s just hard to trust Boucher in a tight spot. He remains situational when everyone is healthy.
Ten — Bottom line: The Raptors have now dropped into a tie with the surging Boston Celtics for second in the East, and it could remain this way for a while as the Raptors have a difficult schedule for the month of March. Getting the No. 2 seed avoids a first-round meeting with the inconsistent-yet-talented Sixers, but the most important factor is health. If the Raptors can ever get to full strength, they can compete with anyone, but that has eluded them all year.
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