Toronto Raptors (24-21) at Denver Nuggets (22-22): 3 keys to win

The Toronto Raptors’ first of five straight road games tips off in the Mile High City. The Nuggets had a magical season last year, but are struggling now and outside the playoff picture. Major injuries suffered by their best frontcourt men have been costly. A stress fracture to his shin sidelined JaVale McGee, and Danilo Gallinari blew out his knee. Both are lost for the season.

Jan 25, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chander (21), center J.J. Hickson (7) , guard Randy Foye (4), and guard Ty Lawson (3) celebrate during the second half against the Indiana Pacers at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 109-96. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Point guard Ty Lawson, who leads the Nuggets in minutes, points and assists, always gives the Raps fits. He is lightening-quick, and a fierce on-ball defender. Denver uses speed as a weapon to overcome their lack of size; no starter is taller than 6’9″. Kenneth Faried does much of the rebounding, using quickness and positioning to beat bigger men. Their small forward is the consistent Wilson Chandler, who will never be an All-Star but chips in all over the scoresheet. J.J. Hickson is another journeyman who hustles, grabs a ton of rebounds, and bothers every shot. Shooting guard Randy Foye has worn a lot of teams’ jerseys in 7+ NBA seasons. He’s a high-volume shooter from distance, and makes just enough to be dangerous.

Off the bench, giant Russian center, Timofey Mozgov destroyed the Raps on the boards in Toronto in early December. Tiny Nate Robinson can still score. Evan Fournier has been a disappointment, but they keep rolling him out in hopes he’ll improve. Andre Miller was the highly competent backup at point, but got embroiled in a dispute and won’t play for the Nuggets again.

The Raps have injury issues of their own, as both DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson are day-to-day. Toronto has proven capable of winning even without those estimable gentlemen, and can do so again if they:

  • find their man when the shot goes up. Denver outrebounds its opponents on hustle, not size, but they can’t overcome the Raps’ height advantage if our guys box out.
  • get more from the bench. John Salmons had an off-night against Orlando, but will be needed in this match. Chuck Hayes survives in the NBA on smarts, and will need them to neutralize Denver’s rebounders. Will we see Julyan Stone again, since Greivis Vasquez will be starting at shooting guard?
  • play inside-out. The Raps had success against Orlando when Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson repeatedly got in the paint. The Nuggets are better defenders than the Magic (that isn’t hard), so our bigs, when double-teamed, will need to make passes to our outside men.

I’d feel more sanguine about this game if the Alliteration Twins, DD & PP, were suiting up. However, I’ll still take the Raps in a tight one, 102-100.

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