As they did two nights earlier in their home opener against the Portland Trailblazers when the Nuggets led by eight points with under a minute remaining, Denver let their youth and inexperience get the better of them again tonight as they surrendered another late fourth-quarter lead, this time falling to the Toronto Raptors 105-102.
After Denver led 99-93, with 5:56 left in the fourth quarter, the Raptors went on a 12-3 run to close the game behind Kyle Lowry who had 12 of his 29 points in the final period. On two separate possessions late in the fourth, Lowry was able to blow by Danilo Gallinari on the perimeter who found himself guarding the smaller man after subsequent defensive switches which sealed the game for Toronto.
"Late in the game, we're switching pick-and-rolls," Malone said. "And Kyle Lowry just got right by us."
After trailing at halftime 49-62, the Nuggets stormed back into the game after a 9-2 run led by Will Barton who finished tied for a team-high 16 points despite spraining his ankle at the end of the third quarter. Barton did not return to the game, but the Nuggets did report that X-rays on Barton's ankle were negative.
That five-man unit, featuring Barton, Gallinari Emmanuel Mudiay, Wilson Chandler and Jusuf Nurkic was able to build on the success they had at the end of the first half when they played the Raptors even for a four-minute stretch and were able to cut Toronto's lead to four.
"It's the second game in a row where we waited until the second half to show up," Malone said after the game.
Yet, the story for Denver tonight was Nurkic, who saw his first fourth-quarter minutes of the year and was the Nuggets best player against Toronto. Nurkic played the entire fourth quarter, scored four points and grabbed five rebounds in the final frame. The Bosnian, who played 38 minutes tonight which led Denver's big men, also blocked five shots to go along with his 13 points and 18 rebounds.
The Nuggets found success again with the Nurkic-centric lineup in the fourth as well, but this time it was Jameer Nelson in Barton's place. The veteran, who finished with 13-points on 5-9 shooting off the bench, helped lead the Nuggets on a 10-2 fourth-quarter run to extend Denver's lead to four at 94-90 with eight minutes left. In the midst of that run was Wilson Chandler, who finished with nine points off the bench and hit a three then blocked a Jakob Poeltl alley-oop at the rim to help the Nuggets cling to their small lead.
Toronto closed the game on a 12-3 run as Toronto's backcourt of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (33 points on 13-29 shooting) re-took the lead, but Denver was still within reach.
Down 105-102 with 45 seconds remaining, Denver's late-game offense doomed them again. Gallinari, who scored 16 points on just 3-11 shooting in his second straight inefficient game could only muster up a contested 28-footer that rimmed out.
Then, after a Lowry miss and subsequent shot clock violation, Mudiay (16 points, six rebounds, four assists), missed a contested 3-pointer from the wing that would have tied the game at 105. Mudiay looked like he had Gallinari open off a curl at the top of the key.
Nikola Jokic looked slightly more comfortable than he has on both ends of the floor in Denver's previous two games. Jokic finished with 12 points on 6-9 shooting and four rebounds in 22 minutes. He did not play in the fourth quarter as Malone opted for heavy doses of Nurkic along with a couple minutes for Kenneth Faried.
Barton sprained his left ankle at the end of the third quarter. He walked off the floor under his own power but went straight to the locker room. The Nuggets called it a left ankle sprain but X-Rays were negative.
Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario | October 31, 2016 | Regular Season Game No. 3
NUGGETS STAR OF THE GAME
Nurkic put together another complete game, but this time he got a chance to finsh what he started, receiving his first fourth quarter minutes of the season. Nurkic finished with 13 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 blocks, providing the rim protection the Nuggets had been lacking late in their two previous games. Nurkic played the entire quarter and was clearly tiring later in the game.
Denver's next stop is Minnesota where they'll take on a Timberwolves squad who they could battle for the eighth seed in the West this season. From there they'll head to Detroit, Boston, and Memphis before returning home to host to Golden State Warriors on November 10.