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Game 16: Raps can't keep up with Nuggets

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Well, at least they changed things up a bit.

After a slight change to the starting five (Amir Johnson out, Tyler Hansbrough in) and an insistence by Dwane Casey that the club's poor starts could not continue, the Toronto Raptors (6-10) answered the bell early on Sunday afternoon to the tune of a 27-12 run to open the game. The problem, however, was the remainder of the contest, as Denver's balanced scoring and pesky defence pushed them to a 112-98 road win over the visibly frustrated Raptors.

Denver was simply the superior team on this night, out-shooting and out-rebounding Toronto while also asserting their ability to create offensive opportunities (they had 29 assists on the night, to the Raps' 18). Nate Robinson, long a Raptor killer, had a team-best 23 points on 9-14 shooting to lead the way, but it was a balanced scoring attack (six Nuggets scored in double figures) that had Toronto defenders scrambling as Denver consistently found the open shooter.

For the Raptors, Rudy Gay had his best game of late, scoring 23 points on 10-23 shooting along with nine rebounds, three assists and three steals. Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas showed no ill effects from the Johnson/Hansbrough switch and recorded 18 points on 8-16 shooting and 11 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass. However, a poor shooting performance from the team's back court (DeMar DeRozan, the most evidently frustrated Raptor, and Kyle Lowry shot just 10-29) denied the home side the opportunity to counter their opponents' offensive depth.

The Good:

A Strong Start
Too often, the narrative structure of Raptor games this season has been fall into a deep hole early and then rally back, only to fall just short of a full-fledged comeback triumph. On Sunday, the Raps took the first part of the narrative out of the equation by coming on strong from the opening tip. The early 27-12 advantage was built up on account of ball sharing (the first five Toronto scoring plays came from each different member of the starting five), which led to some open looks over ill-prepared Denver defenders.The early fire obviously didn't stay hot, but there were encouraging signs that the team has taken its recent early struggles to heart.

The Bad:

The Switch Didn't Work
Inserting Hansbrough into the starting line-up for Johnson looked like a masterstroke early, but didn't last. Very quickly, Denver's defence adjusted to the presence of Hansbrough by keeping him out of the paint and daring him to shoot mid-range jumpers. Once the energy that 'Psycho T' had disappated, he simply wasn't a factor in the game (he finished with seven points and five rebounds in 34 minutes. On the flip side, Johnson's demotion did little to help him find a game that has been mysteriously absent for much of the year. If he wanted to prove Casey wrong for the benching, his 0-point, 3-rebound, -16 showing didn't exactly send the desired message.

Death By Bench
The biggest effect of the Hansbrough-for-Johnson switch was on the Raptors' bench - and it wasn't a positive one. Instead of the spark that Hansbrough typically offers, the Toronto second unit got nothing out of a shell-of-himself Johnson without anyone else there to step up and carry the load. The group of Johnson, Terrence Ross, Steve Novak and Julyan Stone endured their typical offensive struggles (16 points on 5-15 shooting), but it was their inability to defend the Nuggets that really made the bench battle a one-sided affair. Led by Robinson and Darrell Arthur's 14 points on perfect 7-7 shooting, the Nuggets' bench reeled off 72 points to more than support their starting teammates.

The Random:

This isn't a list that you want to find any - let alone two - of your players on.

The Opposition:

Provided they aren't going to insert themselves into the Wiggins/Randle/Parker/Smart sweepstakes (unlikely) or find a way to bring in a bona fide mega-star (unlikelier), Toronto could be worse off than to have Masai Ujiri carry his roster-building approach over from Denver. With a roster largely constructed by the new Raps GM, the Nuggets are 10-6, have a wackload of depth (did anyone notice the absence of Javale McGee and Danilo Galinari?) and can score in any number of ways. While they aren't without flaws (size, mainly), they look awfully strong for a team that has lost Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala in recent years.

Next Up:

Doesn't get any easier, as a three-game Western swing kicks off on Tuesday night with a visit to Golden State and the explosive Warriors (10:30pm, SN360).

Prediction: Warriors 116, Raps 104 (10-5 this season)

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