The Denver Nuggets came into last night’s game against the Raptors in desperate need of a win to keep their ever-shrinking playoff hopes alive. Beating the best team in the Eastern Conference on the second night of a back-to-back isn’t the easiest proposition, but these sorts of games do present a path to victory: keep the game close and get a late lead big enough to convince the superior team with nothing to play for to pack it in.
The Nuggets almost got there. They hung tight with the Raptors through the first three quarters, and had themselves an eight-point lead with 11 minutes to play in the fourth. The Raptors seemed willing to play along, emptying the bench and playing an entire unit of reserves—minus a five-minute cameo from Kyle Lowry—for the whole fourth quarter. Here you had the desperate team with everything to play for matched up with a coasting team’s bench. And yet, the Nuggets got their damn asses handed to them.
Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam each played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. They were joined by C.J. Miles, who was on the floor for seven minutes of the final frame. That group blitzed the Nuggets, erasing the eight-point deficit with a 15-2 run and outscoring Denver 32-25 for the quarter. VanVleet ran the show with nine points and three assists, and the Nuggets simply could not handle Poeltl, who scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds in the quarter.
This wasn’t a bunch of scrappy bench players feasting on a tired opponent, either. If you’ve watched the Raptors at all this season, you know that their bench operates as a fully functional five-man unit that can stand toe-to-toe with a lot of starting fives. These are not the sorts of highlights you’ll see from run-of-the-mill bench scrubs:
I’m genuinely interested to see what Dwane Casey is going to do with these guys once the playoffs start. Tightening things up and cutting a rotation down to eight players is usually a no-brainer for every coach in the postseason, but this unit has played so well all year that it’s not crazy to think Casey can’t afford to break it up. The Nuggets aren’t a great team, but last night they were a desperate one fighting for their season. That they were so easily brushed aside says a lot about what the Raptors’ bench unit is equipped to handle.