We knew there was a gap between the NBA’s championship contenders and this year’s Toronto Raptors — just not that it was quite as wide as it appeared at times on Wednesday night.
Credit the Raptors for a spirited comeback to within a few baskets, but the defending title winners from Denver came to town and played their unique brand of bully ball, outclassing the Raptors for much of the night in a 113-104 victory.
The Raptors carved a 19-point Denver lead down to five in the fourth quarter, but Denver’s two game-changers — Nikola Jokic and Kitchener native Jamal Murray — had answer after answer to snuff out the rally.
Jokic finished with 31 points and 15 rebounds, Murray 20 points and six assists and four other Nuggets scored in double figures.
Scottie Barnes scored 30, Pascal Siakam 16. Barnes and Siakam started strong for the Raptors, but just about every other player struggled while the Nuggets starters dominated. The great Jokic, a two-time MVP and arguably the most skilled seven-footer ever, didn’t even look fully engaged in the proceedings, yet threw a few ridiculous passes. His sidekick Murray, who had averaged fewer than 14 points on poor shooting in his previous six games at Toronto, was hot from the start and even shook off being targeted on defence for several first-quarter possessions. When the Nuggets needed them most, the two-man game of their stars proved as difficult for the Raptors to solve as a four-year-old gifted a Rubik’s Cube.
Toronto blew out the Nuggets in the team’s lone visit to Toronto last season, something Nuggets head coach Michael Malone had pointed out, but the team looked far different than that one which had arrived later in the year last season.
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Denver, coming off a 130-104 win over Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, is now 19-10, while Toronto fell to 11-16 and fell behind by at least 10 points for the eighth game in a row.
The Nuggets looked like a well-oiled machine, while the Raptors looked like a bad offensive team carried early by two great players who eventually cooled off. Raptors players other than those two shot 6-21 in the first half.
Malone had said beforehand that Denver has been treating its short road trip as a “business trip” and indeed his team was all business in this one. Unlike the home side, Denver’s roster has been expertly constructed to take advantage of the brilliance of Jokic. Good trades, have complemented strong drafting. Landing Jokic was a miracle and there was luck involved in Murray slipping to Denver in his draft, but the work since has been stellar.
Meanwhile, Toronto has lost six of eight since pulling within a game of .500 and dropped to 5-12 against opponents .500 or better. Things don’t get much easier, with the team slated to face another MVP-caliber big man in Joel Embiid and Nick Nurse’s Philadelphia 76ers on the road on Friday before completing the back-to-back with a home date with the struggling Utah Jazz, who just got all-star Lauri Markkanen back.