Nuggets close regular season with loss to Raptors, starters on bench – The Denver Post
The first indication came early, so absolutely no one from either organization would be confused.
For seeding purposes, Friday’s game between the Nuggets and Raptors was meaningless, and both teams would treat it as such. The Nuggets’ playoff quest begins Monday vs. Utah, and they would do nothing to jeopardize the availability of the team’s regulars.
On the bus ride to the arena, Denver’s coaching staff got word Toronto planned to rest several of its starters, including Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. The Nuggets acted accordingly, limiting starters Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to just 10 minutes each.
The Raptors hung on against most of Denver’s reserves, winning the final game of the regular season, 117-109. The Nuggets finished the regular season 46-27, content to cede minutes to reserves Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier and Troy Daniels.
Paul Millsap played 16 minutes and none in the second half, finishing with 10 points and three rebounds. Michael Porter Jr. didn’t play at all, with the Nuggets holding the rookie out for rest purposes.
In the starters’ stead, Denver’s backups scored 81 points Friday, led by 16 from Morris and 20 from Dozier. Regardless of whether Dozier plays much in the playoffs, the eight seeding games were huge for his confidence and development. Between injuries and resting players, Dozier has benefited from the Nuggets’ approach.
The Nuggets found themselves in a somewhat unusual spot Friday afternoon of having already clinched the No. 3 seed but still with one game to play. Nuggets coach Michael Malone made it clear his biggest priority was getting out of the game healthy. Within that, there were still some things to address.
“You’re preparing for this game, the Raptors,” Malone said. “This is more about us. Can we find a way to defend the 3-point line? Can we find a way to take care of the ball? … And just go out there and compete, try to create good habits, so we can go into Monday’s game feeling good about ourselves. That’s the goal. We know that we’ll turn the page very quickly and start preparing for Utah right when the game is over.”
Still a concern after Friday, the Raptors connected on 18-of-35 from 3-point range.
Asked about the surging offenses in the bubble, Malone posited an interesting theory before the game. He said that over the break, Phil Jackson spoke to the all the NBA’s coaches and predicted an offensive outburst once the games resumed.
“His reasoning for that was, over the four months when players could not compete, you couldn’t be around anybody, all you had was a ball and a basket and guys shot and shot and shot and shot,” Malone said. “Their percentages across the board are through the roof.
“And then you look at defense,” he continued. “Why is the defense struggling, why is our defense struggling? Well, for four and a half months, you were working on your game. We didn’t have a Phase 1, so now we’re trying to implement things on the fly, if you will, and re-connect defensively, which is five guys working as one.”
Entering Friday’s game, the Nuggets had by far the worst defensive rating of all 22 teams in the bubble. On offense, they were fifth overall, including a league-high 28.7 assists. Four teams were shooting over 40% from 3-point range thus far in the bubble, whereas no teams reached that benchmark during the first portion of the season. The Nuggets’ inability to stop opponents has been a constant source of frustration for Malone and company.
Denver’s defense was barely there for the majority of the first half, as Toronto got up by as much as 16 early. But the Nuggets’ reserves slowly chipped away and trimmed the deficit to just 58-50 going into halftime.
Their perimeter defense and transition defense still appeared to be major concerns, which Murray, on Wednesday, attributed to lack of communication. The Raptors shot nearly 60% from the field in the first half, including more than 40% from 3-point range.
Malone was conscientious of his starters’ minutes and limited Murray and Jokic to just 10 minutes each over the first two quarters. Murray, Millsap and Dozier kept it relatively close with eight combined 3-pointers.