TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors were seven seconds away from possibly salvaging a bad game, and potentially capturing their ninth consecutive victory.
Instead, Nikola Jokic had three free throws in the dying seconds and Toronto's eight-game winning streak came to an end at the hands of Jokic, Canadian Jamal Murray, and the Denver Nuggets.
Murray, from Kitchener, Ont., had 21 points, while Jokic had a triple double — 23 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds — in Denver's 106-103 victory over Toronto, the Nuggets' sixth win in a row.
"(Jokic) does everything. He passes, rebounds, handles the ball. There's nothing that he can't do except jump," Murray said with a laugh. "He did a lot for us tonight, he hit some big clutch free throws, we got it done tonight."
Kawhi Leonard had 27 points for Toronto (20-5), while Serge Ibaka had 15, Pascal Siakam chipped in with 14, Kyle Lowry had 11 assists and Jonas Valanciunas hauled down 10 rebounds.
Moments after the game, Lowry had already left the locker-room while Leonard headed to the upstairs gym to work out.
Clawing their way back from a 12-point deficit, a fadeaway shot by Leonard tied the game with 7.1 seconds on the clock. But Ibaka was whistled for a foul on the Nuggets' inbounds play.
"I'm going to have to look at (the video)," said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who earlier in the day was named Eastern Conference coach of the month. "I asked (the official), he said he had to call it. I don't know, guys coming off a screen, I've got to look at it, I haven't seen it yet."
The Raptors were riding an eight-game win streak that included a recent overtime victory over Golden State, but were hosting a not-too-shabby Denver team that has been climbing the Western Conference standings. They arrived in Toronto tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for first in the West.
Denver was definitely the better team on the night, particularly in the first half in which the Raptors were a woeful combined 3-for-22 from three-point range. The Nuggets led 86-78 with one quarter to play.
A three by C.J. Miles brought the sleepy Scotiabank Arena crowd to life, pulling Toronto to within a point with eight minutes to play.
But on the Nuggets' next possession, Valanciunas was whistled for fouling on a three-point play. Nurse was irate, and picked up a technical. That put Denver back up by four, and prompted the outraged crowd to chant "Ref you suck!"
Then trailing by a point with two minutes to play, Leonard air-balled a three-point attempt, but made up for it with a long jumper — and a double fist pump in celebration — on the Raptors' next trip down the floor to give the Raptors a brief lead.
A missed free throw by Juancho Hernangomez with 12 seconds left gave Toronto one last gasp, setting up Leonard's game-tying basket. But the final three free throws, and a Lowry three-point shot that clanged off the rim at the buzzer, instantly sucked the energy out of the building.
"We didn't lose that game at the end of the game. I just think our approach from the beginning of our first half . . . Beginning of the game, end of the game, they made some tough ones. We got to do better locking in from start to finish," Danny Green said.
The Raptors shot just 27 per cent form the three-point line, were outscored 23-2 on second-chance points, and were outrebounded 15-7 on the offensive glass.
"Early in the game, they did everything, they wanted to win more than we did. We didn't bring the energy that we usually have, we let them get on the run and then we had to fight back," Siakam said.
The Raptors shot a horrible 2-for-12 from three-point range in the first quarter, but still managed to keep it close. The Nuggets closed the quarter with a 9-2 run to take a 27-24 advantage into the second.
Toronto's terrible three-point shooting continued in the second — Miles connected on the only one of 10 that fell for the Raptors. Torrey Craig's three late in the quarter gave the Nuggets a double-digit lead, then Murray had a running dunk off a Craig steal to send Denver into halftime with a 59-47 lead.
The Raptors' tough stretch in the schedule continues on Wednesday when they host Philadelphia. Among their next dozen opponents are Milwaukee, the L.A. Clippers, Golden State, the Nuggets again but in Denver, and Indiana.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press