Anunoby struggles as Raptors’ win streak comes to an end

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 110-109 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

1. The Raptors lost their eight-game win streak in frustrating fashion. Nikola Jokic showed rare athleticism with a clutch block on OG Anunoby’s tip-in at the end to preserve the win, but it should have never come down to that. The Raptors showed too many lapses on defence, and their supporting players were too inefficient in a game that was winnable. The officiating did them no favours, and it’s a minor miracle that coach Nick Nurse avoided picking up a technical despite his annoyance at the one-sided calls. Regardless, this is one of many games that the Raptors will come to regret in a very tight playoff race in the East this season.

2. The final play was a repeat of the same action that got the Raptors back into the game. Pascal Siakam handled the ball at the top, with Fred VanVleet coming over to set a screen before flaring out to the perimeter. The play worked great the first time as VanVleet was able to drill a three after his defender lingered on Siakam, which set him up to drill a three that cut it down to one point. Jokic then gave the Raptors a lifeline by missing both free throws on the intentional foul, and the Raptors returned to the same action. Once again, the Nuggets had both defenders keeping Siakam from getting downhill, so he made the same pass to VanVleet in the same spot, except this time the shot was long. Anunoby was in the right spot for the rebound, but he couldn’t get up quick enough to avoid the block from Jokic.

3. The Raptors dropped the ball at the start of the fourth quarter. With Jokic resting, and the Nuggets riding an all-bench lineup, the Raptors should have established a lead to take control of the game. Instead, the Raptors were uncharacteristically sloppy, bricked open shots on offence, while getting beat on simple actions by the Nuggets at the other end. Austin Rivers got his only two baskets of the game by beating Siakam, then Scottie Barnes, on straight line drives out of the corner. The Raptors also allowed Jeff Green and DeMarcus Cousins to walk down the lane for layups without showing help at the basket, while Bryn Forbes was allowed to slip behind the defence for back-to-back jumpers. These little plays kept the Nuggets in the game, and set the stage for a rested Jokic to come in and close it out.

4. This was a very subpar game from Anunoby. Right from the start, Anunoby picked up two soft fouls against Jokic in a game where he absolutely needed to be on the floor for his strength in the post. Throughout the game, Anunoby bricked so many open chances, and he was 1-for-5 from deep despite being set up perfectly time and time against by Siakam and VanVleet. Anunoby’s finishing at the rim was also uncharacteristically poor, as he was blocked by a washed-up Cousins at the basket, flubbed a layup against Jeff Green at the rim, and even smoked a wide-open layup in the fourth, which immediately turned into two free throws for the Nuggets in transition. Anunoby’s reads were also poor at times, including with two minutes left when he decided to drive against Jokic, which was a low-percentage play against a much bigger player. Defensively, he whiffed badly on a gamble where he jumped the pass against Jokic, forcing VanVleet to slide over, thus opening up Bones Hyland for the game-winning three, while also being caught ball-watching on a three by Forbes. The block at the end was fitting on a night to forget for Anuonby.

5. Siakam’s superstar performance was sadly wasted. He was awesome from start to finish, cutting the Nuggets apart despite their entire defensive strategy being tilted towards stopping his progress. Siakam was confident from three, got to his spots patiently in the midrange, and was able to drive through the defence repeatedly. The Nuggets tried loading up the paint by dropping back and shifting to a zone for portions of the game, but Siakam had an answer for everything, so they ultimately decided to blitz him above the arc just to force anyone other than Siakam to beat them. Unfortunately, in a game where Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. shot a combined 2-for-10 from deep, there were not repercussions. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Siakam’s part, as even when he was double-teamed late in the clock in the fourth quarter, the forward was still able to come up with two timely midrange jumpers to keep the Raptors afloat.

6. Siakam’s patience on offence is opening up so many chances for himself and his teammates. He’s taking the extra dribbles to see how the defence reacts, waiting the extra half-second to read and anticipate where the second defender is coming from, and finding all the gaps. He had a gorgeous dime to Dalano Banton after he drew a double in the post, which set up Banton for an impressive reverse layup in traffic. A few minutes later, Siakam threw a bounce pass threw traffic to spot Anunoby on a cut, except he was slow to get off the ground and allowed Cousins to block the shot, although Banton was fouled on the putback so the Raptors still got something out of it. When the doubles don’t come, Siakam is extremely confident in either being able to get to the rim, or to be able to spin back into his jumper. He should have the ball almost every time down.

7. Khem Birch had his longest run since returning from nose surgery. Birch was called up to play the entire second quarter, as Nurse stuck with him since he was rolling. Birch’s strength on the interior was key to the Raptors limiting Cousins in the middle, and Birch even created a few deflections and won some loose rebounds against Jokic. The Raptors also needed his playmaking since the Nuggets were trapping VanVleet and Siakam at times, and Birch specializes in making the quick pass out of the post. He also mixed in a pair of his signature flip shots from about five feet out, which is an effective counter to teams that try to sit back to contest at the rim.

8. Nurse should shuffle his centre rotations according to the matchups. Against a team like the Nuggets who feature two heavy 7-footers in the lane, Birch should get extended run while Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher should sit. In games where switching and mobility is more emphasized such as with a pick-and-roll lob finisher or against a smallball team, it makes more to lean more heavily on Achiuwa and Boucher. What’s unclear is how Thaddeus Young fits into all of this, as he bridges the gap in that he can handle both types of matchups. Young took part in warmups but did not see the floor, which is understandable since he has yet to practise with the team and is just getting settled into his new team, but even when he picks up the schemes, there will be redundancies for Nurse to solve.

9. This was an off-night from Trent Jr. who had a modest 11 points after averaging 28 in his last 10 games. Trent Jr. wasn’t emphasized in the offence in the first quarter, and was left to find his footing on his own as the game went on. He was well defended for the most part as the Nuggets worked tirelessly to run him off the line, and Trent Jr. did counter with a pair of driving layups, but clearly this was not his best game. He also seemed to be frustrated with the matchup against Facundo Campazzo, the pesky 30-year-old from Argentina, as Trent Jr. tried to flop against him twice and spent the majority of a timeout in the second half campaigning to the officials about the sneaky tricks that Campazzo was pulling. The Raptors should put more of an emphasis into freeing up Trent Jr. at the start of games to keep him engaged.

10. Barnes had an impressive game in the paint. Barnes was aggressive in looking for his shot, even when matched up against the bigger Jokic, including a strong drive in the third quarter where Barnes got to the opposite side of the paint, before muscling his way back to the basket while trapping Jokic on his back. Barnes also showed his smarts by repeatedly cutting behind his defenders from the weak side while other Raptors attacked, which allowed him to flash into gaps to catch and fire on short flip shots. It’s impressive that a rookie who played point guard in college is effectively playing centre a few months later.

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