Game No. 20: Nuggets 96, Raptors 81

The Raptors were looking to win their third straight road game on this Western road trip and had a chance to snap yet another lengthy losing streak against a Western Conference opponent. Instead, they handed the Nuggets their sixth straight victory.

Toronto came into this ball game 0-6 without Andrea Bargnani and averaged just 81 points in their six previous games without Il Mago. Go figure, in falling to 0-7 without Bargnani, the Raps scored 81.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

1- Those sluggish starts continue to plague the Raptors. On Friday, the Raptors started one-of-15 from the field and didn’t surpass two points until nearly nine minutes into the game. They shot five-of-21 overall in the first quarter and found themselves down 28-12 after Andre Miller capped the first quarter with this fitting punch to the gut. I wrote about how bad the Raptors have started games recently after their win in Phoenix, but given that the trend has continued in Utah and Denver, I figured it’s worth bringing up again. Just how bad has Toronto been in the opening quarters of games lately? In their last eight first quarters, the Raptors have been outscored 219-123 (or an average of 27.4-15.4) and have trailed by at least eight points after each one of those first quarters (trailed by as many as 16 twice).

2- A tale of two halves, almost. The Raptors went into halftime down 22 points, but the comeback bid started with the Raps matching their entire first half output (32 points) in the third quarter alone, and continued into the early portion of the fourth quarter with Jerryd Bayless and Leandro Barbosa carrying the load (combining for 37 points or 46 per cent of the Raptors’ offence). A Barbosa three actually had the Nuggets’ lead down to six with nine minutes to play, and momentum clearly shifting, but then Dwane Casey took Bayless and Barbosa out of the game, leaving things to go downhill from there. I like what Dwane Casey has done with this team through 20 games, but can we call that fourth quarter substitution inadvertent tanking?

3- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Good was James Johnson finishing with yet another solid performance of 16 points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. In his last five games, Johnson is averaging 13.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.6 steals. Bad was Jose Calderon finishing with nine points on three-of-10 shooting and an uncharacteristic three turnovers to just two assists. Ugly was DeMar DeRozan, who continues to struggle, finishing with eight points on three-of-15 shooting and three turnovers. In his last 14 games, since this mega-slump began for DeRozan, he’s averaging just 12 points per game on an ugly 32.8 per shooting (63-of-192).

4- Jerryd Bayless probably had his best game of the season on Friday night, scoring 18 points on an incredibly efficient seven-of-10 shooting in just 16 minutes of action. Bayless was leaps and bounds ahead of Jose Calderon in Denver, leaving me to wonder how the heck Jose got 32 minutes in this game while Bayless only got 16? If Calderon continues to slow down, as we’ve seen in recent games, and Bayless can build some momentum off of this performance, I wonder if we will see the 48 minutes available at the point guard position slowly even out between Jose and Jerryd.

5- A quick word on the Nuggets. I know he’s already received a ton of praise, but former Raptors employee Masai Ujiri deserves all of it and more for his calm and patient approach to the Carmelo Anthony situation last season. The Knicks may have gotten the “superstar” in that deal, but the Nuggets clearly got the better overall package, and a much more team-friendly package at that. If you don’t think the Nuggets won that deal, quite frankly, you’ve been sleeping for the last 10 months. Denver has a good starting unit, great depth and a reliable bench, and gets above average play from both the point guard (Ty Lawson and Andre Miller) and centre (Nene) positions. I don’t think they can beat the Thunder in a seven-game series, but with way they’re playing right now (14-5, second in the West), it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Nuggets meet Oklahoma City in the West Final. The most efficient offence in the NBA coupled with an underrated defence is a nice playoff recipe.

6- This game was a dud, in all honesty, but luckily Linas Kleiza gave us something to talk about with 30 seconds remaining when his hand “accidentally” collided with Al Harrington’s face while trying to play defence. Harrington was obviously upset (though in fairness, Harrington seems pretty easy to rile up), and Kleiza appeared to be jawing at him as they walked down the floor. The end result was Harrington snapping and trying to get through a flurry of players to confront Kleiza, to no avail. What I want to know is what in the hell Keiza said to Harrington to get him so fired up? Maybe Al was just really ticked about the hand in his face, maybe he was insanely frustrated with the fact that Kleiza was basically laughing in his face while he tried to talk trash, but I’m thinking Linas had to say something to set him off like that. If he did, I’m dying to know what it was.

Raptors Player of the Game: James Johnson – 27 Min, 16 Pts, 7-10 FG, 1-1 3PT, 1-2 FT, 3 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 Stl, 1 Blk (Fouled out)

Nuggets Player of the Game: Nene – 34 Min, 20 Pts, 5-10 FG, 10-14 FT, 10 Reb, 3 Stl, 1 Blk, 1 TO