The talk was hot and heavy among the Toronto Raptors this week as the team tried to come to grips with continued uneven performances that has left their playoff hopes in jeopardy with just over two weeks left in the regular season schedule.
The Raptors were unable to back up all the rhetoric, falling victim to a crushing 97-96 defeat to the Denver Nuggets before a deflated sellout gathering at the Air Canada Centre last night.
All Raptors forward Antoine Wright could do was cradle his head in his hands while lying prone on the floor after Denver's Mr. Big, Carmelo Anthony, coolly knocked down an 18-foot fade away jump shot at the buzzer to send the Raptors to defeat.
For Anthony, who finished the game with 25 points and eight rebounds, the made basket made up for a missed shot moments earlier that appeared to give Toronto the victory.
But the big body of Nene managed to corral the rebound for Denver as both teams battled for the loose ball in a frenzied finish near the Nuggets basket and it found its way to Anthony who made sure his second try found the mark.
"The last play was tough," Jay Triano, a dejected Toronto coach, said afterward. "The rebound was up there, everybody's rushing in. It gets tipped once, twice and then they chase it down."
The Raptors (35-36), who are in a life and death struggle to secure the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, had not exactly draped themselves in glory in their previous two home court outings.
For a team that once ruled the roost at home, the Raptors looked surprisingly drab during consecutive 26-point setbacks to the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma Thunder in their previous two outings at the ACC.
That led to much soul searching among the players during practice this week in preparation for last night's encounter against the Nuggets as the Raptors vowed to take more of a vested interest in a season that was spiraling out of control.
Last night the Raptors played with more passion and desire than it has exhibited in its recent games, digging their way out of a first half-half disadvantage with a solid third quarter to take an 81-72 lead into the fourth quarter.
Sonny Weems led the onslaught, scoring 10 of his 14 points in the frame, to key the Toronto comeback, but they couldn't make it hold up despite out-rebounding Denver by a healthy 58-38 margin in the contest.
The Raptors haven't enjoyed such a significant rebounding advantage over an opponent in a game since 2002.
Denver came into the game without coach George Karl, one of the game's most popular figures who is undergoing treatment for throat and neck cancer.
According to a blog posted by his girlfriend, Karl was hospitalized this week with bloodlots in his lungs and a leg.
In his absence, assistant Adrian Dantley has been calling the shots.
Chauncey Billups knocked down a big three-point shot for Denver with 33 seconds left that knotted the score at 95-95.
Chris Bosh, who finished with 18 points for Toronto but also had five turnovers, then hit on one of his two free throws with 16 seconds left that moved the Raptors in front 96-95, setting the stage for Anthony's game ending heroics.
"In the end their two clutch players made two great shots," Triano said. "Chauncy's three with a hand right in his face gives them a chance. And a second chance Carmelo makes a contested two at the buzzer. Their stars made plays.
"It's tough to swallow but there's nothing we can do about it."
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