Raptors will have their hands full against Nuggets' Nurkic, Jokic
Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets get ready before the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 21, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Don’t let the lesser known names on the Denver Nuggets fool you.
The Nuggets arrive in Toronto for Monday's tilt without much fanfare but plenty of young talent on the roster.
The Raptors got a look at the Nuggets in Calgary. Playing without DeMar DeRozan in that pre-season game, Toronto took one on the chin from Mike Malone’s side.
The names Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic may not be all that familiar outside Denver’s fanbase but the pair have the attention of Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his starting centre Jonas Valanciunas.
“They’re very talented. Young and talented,” Casey said of the Denver bigs.
“Jokic has probably done one of the best jobs with his body of any big guy in the league. They just try to physically come and knock you on your keester. It’s gonna be a physical, inside game. They run the floor, they're active, they’re very skilled. They have a nice young team, very talented team. I think by the end of the year, they’ll be one of the top teams in the West.”
And Denver's big front court made up of one Serb (Jokic), a Bosnian (Nurkic) and an Italian (Danilo Gallinari) is going to be a big reason why they move up the ranks.
Valanciunas hasn’t faced either internationally but got an introduction last year in the regular season and again during that game in Calgary. He came away impressed.
“They are powerful big guys because they have size,” Valanciunas said of the 6-foot-11 Jokic and 7-footer Nurkic. “It’s hard because they have size and they power inside so it will be a tough matchup for us.”
Nurkic had a career-high 23 points in the Nuggets season-opener win in New Orleans. Jokic had 23 and 17 rebounds in the loss to Portland on Saturday. Both are capable of stopping opponents and scoring on them.
The fact that Toronto lost both regular season games to Denver last season may have surprised some from the outside but not Casey.
“People looked at them last year and said ‘How’d you lose to them twice?’” Casey said, “but they’re a very talented, skilled team that I think is underrated just because they’re so young.”
Valanciunas and Pascal Siakam — assuming he gets the start again in Game 3 — will see plenty of Nurkic and Jokic, but it’s not like the two Denver bigs won’t have their work cut out for themselves.
Valanciunas is looking more and more comfortable on both ends of the floor and is getting more touches this year than ever before in the Toronto offence.
However, Casey says Valanciunas' biggest weapon against the Denver bigs will be his mobility, an area he has been working on since he got to the NBA. That work is starting to pay dividends now.
“He’s gotta one, out-run them the way he did (Detroit centre Andre) Drummond (in the season opener)," Casey said. “I thought he did a good job of out-running Drummond and beating him to the spot.
“Second, once he gets there, he’s gotta hold his position, cause they’re coming with force. They’re gonna come and try to pile drive you off your position, out of your way, and then here comes (Kenneth) Faried. After you try to wrestle with Jokic and Nurkic, here comes Faried getting his tip-ins.
“Our job is gonna be really one of physicality in the paint, protecting the paint. And it’s gonna have to be a five-man job, the guards are gonna have to come in and help and sandwich and help our bigs out, cause they’re coming.”
Both teams have thus far owned the boards in their respective first two games and Casey has that as his difference maker in Monday’s game.
“No question, that’s gonna be the story for (Monday) night, who wins the boards,” Casey said.
Tipoff is 7:30 Monday night.