Something had to give in a game featuring two of the hottest teams in the National Basketball Association and in the end it was the Toronto Raptors.
Plagued by dysfunctional long-range shooting for most of the contest, the Raptors saw their season-high eight-game win streak come to an abrupt halt with the Denver Nuggets soaring to a 106-103 victory Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.
It was a game pitting the Raptors and their gaudy NBA-best record against the streaking Nuggets, who had won five straight and came to Toronto tied atop the Western Conference standing with the L.A. Clippers.
The Nuggets were led by a superb performance by 7-foot centre Nikola Jokic, who carded a triple-double with 23 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds.
It was an eye-catching performance that did not go unnoticed by Jamal Murray, Denver’s Canadian point guard.
“What you saw, what everybody saw,” Murry responded when asked what he saw from Jokic in the contest. “He does everything. He passes, rebounds, handles the ball. There’s nothing that he can’t do except jump.”
The Nuggets carted a deserving 86-78 lead into the fourth quarter, when the Raptors made their move when a three-ball off the fingertips of C.J. Miles cut Denver’s lead to 89-88 with just under eight minutes to play.
The crowd leapt to its feet in rapturous applause, but its joy soon turned to despair after Toronto centre Jonas Valanciunas was handed a very dubious foul on Denver’s Monte Morris while he was in the act of shooting a three.
It did not appear the big Toronto centre ever touched Morris, and certainly Toronto coach Nick Nurse thought so and he was handed a technical for voicing his opinion.
As howls of protest rained down from the stands, the Nuggets made the penalty shot and Morris then hit on two of his three foul shots and Nuggets lead was up to 92-88.
But Toronto persevered and would come back to knot the score at 94-94 on an emphatic dunk by Serge Ibaka with just over four minutes left to play.
The game was frantically contested right down to the final seconds when Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard nailed a 10-foot jumper that knotted the score at 103-103 with just seven seconds left.
Following a Denver timeout, Paul Millsap was inbounding the ball when an Ibaka foul sent Nikola Jokic to the line for one free throw, which he made to give the Nuggets a 104-103 lead.
Jokic was then sent back to the line with 5.6 seconds left and he made both to sink the Raptors.
Jokic had a monster game for the Nuggets, recording a triple-double with 23 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds. Kawhi Leonard scored 27 in the loss for the Raptors who were outrebounded 49-41 on the night, 15-7 on the offensive glass.
Toronto concluded the game hitting on just 11 of their 41 attempts from beyond the three-point arch.
The game was a homecoming for Jamal Murray, the Denver starting point guard who was born in Jamaica and raised in Kitchener, Ont.
“It’s good to be back home, good to see my fam, my friends and everyone who’s going to be at the game tonight,” the 21-year-old said prior to the game.
And he has started to make his mark in his second season in the NBA. He entered Monday’s game averaging 17.1 points, including a career-best 48-point outburst against the Boston Celtics on Nov. 5.
Murray is a fun-loving sort who is known to often take a stance and fire an imaginary arrow on the court after sticking a three-point shot. Now that he is developing into a force in the Denver lineup, such exhibitions have made him a target for abuse from fans when the Nuggets hit the road.
The point guard just laughs off the ugly-Canadian persona that some now view him as having.
“It’s kind of weird because they call Canadians soft and they always harp on that, and now they call me evil,” Murray said. “So pick one, you can’t have both, man.
Juan (Juancho) Hernangomez scored seven points for Denver in a fast-paced opening quarter during which the Nuggets pulled into a 27-24 lead.
Denver would extend its lead to as many as seven early in the second quarter but Toronto fought back with an 11-2 run, concluded by a driving layup by Delon Wright that lifted Toronto in front 35-33.
Denver banged the offensive board with authority to earn second-chance shots and when Jokic canned a five-foot jumper the Nuggets had carved out at 48-41 lead with just more than three minutes until halftime.
After a timeout, Leonard missed another three from the corner as Toronto continued to struggle mightily from long range, making just three of their 22 attempts in the opening half. Leonard was the worst offender, going 0-for-4 from three.
It all added up to a 59-47 Denver lead by the half.
Finally, some threes started dropping for the Raptors in the third quarter, including a long-distant strike by Leonard that shaved the Denver lead to 73-68 with just more than five minutes left.
But Toronto’s good fortune soon wilted by continued timely shooting by the Nuggets, who finished with a flourish to carry an 86-78 advantage into the final frame.