The Toronto Raptors (25-21) got their Western road swing off on the right foot on Friday night in Denver, controlling play from end to end en route to a 100-90 victory and welcoming both DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson back into the lineup.
The balanced, workman-like effort was short on eye-popping stats, ala Terrence Ross' 51 points vs the Clippers or the club's early 9-9 three-point barrage against Orlando. In fact, no Raptor scored 20 points or grabbed 10 rebounds (the first-time All-Star DeRozan finished with a team-high 19 points on 6-17 shooting in his return from an ankle injury). However, amidst a balanced scoring attack that saw seven players finish with somewhere between nine and 19 points, there was some eye-poppage over Ross' Dunk of the Year candidate over Denver's Kenneth Faried.
All told, the win, coupled with Brooklyn's loss against OKC (17 total rebounds???), gave Toronto a four-game cushion in the Atlantic. It also marked their first win in Denver since 2003 and their 13th road win of the season, matching last year's road win total.
When you're winning, its often easy to get complacent and shrug off smaller flaws in the broader scope of success. So when the Raps entered the second half riding a seven-point lead and having come off two solid victories, it would've been hard to blame them for not being too broken up over a lax defensive effort that saw the Nuggets score 54 first half points, many on easy baskets. Whether it was some locker room humbling or the after-effects of Ross' vicious dunk, Toronto's defence stepped up their game in the second half, allowing just 37 points to a potent Denver offence.
Sometimes, the best defence is a sloppy opposing offence. And sure enough, the Nuggets' starting back court of Randy Foye and Evan Fournier was happy to oblige, combining to cough up 15 of the team's 26 turnovers. To be fair, they were getting hounded pretty aggressively by Lowry, Terrence Ross and John Salmons (two steals each) and were in the tough spot of replacing Ty Lawson (shoulder), Andre Miller (personal) and Nate Robinson (season-ending ACL sprain). However, the turnovers still presented a distinct advantage during a game in which the Raptors got out-shot (45% to 43.5%) and out-rebounded (49-40).
It was only two games (both wins), but the uncertainty surrounding DeRozan's health status after rolling his ankle against Hedo Turkoglu and the L.A. Clippers last Saturday made his re-appearance six days later a relief. While his 6-17 night hardly made for a memorable return, DeRozan offered reason for encouragement by continuing to drive to the basket and getting to the line for a 7-8 shooting night.
Easing Up Too Early
A Salmons' three with 8:47 to play put the Raps up 97-72 and ensured that the game was all but over. But it still wasn't actually over, even as Toronto opted to take the rest of the night off. The visitors scored just three points the rest of the way, including one point over the final 7:44. While the Nuggets didn't exactly pounce, their 18-3 run was enough to make it ever-so-slightly interesting, which is still far more interested than the would-be blow out should have been.
Hard to know which is the better sight... the Ross dunk or the bench reaction to it!
It's hard not to feel at least a little sympathy for the Nuggets right now. Their MASH unit currently includes their three best guards, their best shooter (Danilo Galinari) and their most talented- if unstable - big man (Javale McGee). Still, they have maintained a record sufficiently respectable as to give them a share of the No. 6 spot in the East. Of course, they are stuck in the Western Conference, where their 22-23 mark places them 11th, 3.5 games out of eighth.
The 33-13 Blazers await tonight (10:00pm, TSN), posing a fascinating challenge to the red hot Raptors. Portland has lost two in a row and four of six while having not played since Tuesday, leaving the West's No. 3 seeds rested and angry.
Prediction: Blazers 101, Raps 91 (26-11 this season)