Preview & Chat: The Toronto Raptors

Kurt —  January 24, 2010

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Records: Lakers 32-10 (1st in West) Raptors 22-22 (6th in East)
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 108.3 (10th in league), Raptors 111.2 (4th in league)
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.2 (2nd in league) Raptors 112.7 (30th in league)

Soft? Who You Calling Soft? After the Cleveland game, the “are the Lakers tough enough?” debate has started up again. No doubt, the Lakers were pushed around inside twice now by the Cavs, although I agree with Brian Kamenetzky that the “soft” label is really used a lot to cover up a multitude of other sins.

But I think Mike Moreau has a great take on this (thanks to Busboy for the link). Moreau is the head NBA guy at the IMG training centers (taking David Thorpe’s old job, as Thorpe has gone out his own). I met him at Summer League and he has a great basketball mind, and is a good guy. And he talked about how the Lakers shook the soft label in the playoffs last year.

Go back and look at their series with Denver in last season’s Western Conference Finals. Denver was mauling the Lakers around the basket, killing them inside, beating them up in the paint. L.A. was wearing the soft label again.

So how did the Lakers react? They came back with 54 points in the paint, Odom and Fisher combining for 31 points and 25 assists on 37 field goals, eight players taking at least five shots, and no one taking more than 13. They shared the ball, attacked the rim, and dug in on defense. When last year’s team got punched, they punched back – not only with an aggressive mentality, but with precision execution.
L.A. responded to the challenge on every occasion in last year’s run to the title. They did it first with a change of mind-set, a determination to win the physical battles – from Fisher clocking Scola to Odom crashing the boards to the interior defense locking down. That mentality must be found again on this road trip. The soft, comfy home friendly schedule is over.

But, last year, they also responded with technical points of emphasis in their offense which helped to generate that aggressiveness – more post touches for Gasol, running the high low action between Odom, Gasol and Bynum – which not only got the ball inside and established inside presence, but made plays easier for their supporting cast.

Raptors coming in: Toronto may be a hockey first town, but they have strong hoops culture as well — lots of good blogs and a lot of media coverage. I asked one of them, Hoop Addict’s Ryan McNeil, a couple questions.

1) Defense. Have the Raptors started to play any lately?

Maybe I’m biased but I don’t think Toronto’s defense is nearly as bad as it was made out to be.

Sure, they were on pace to earn the title of worse defense in the history of the NBA, but what people don’t realize is this was just one bad month. Back in November the team was in the middle of getting eight new rotation guys used to Jay Triano’s sets after Bryan Colangelo had a busy season. Throw into the mix Chris Bosh, Antoine Wright and Hedo Turkoglu missed most of the preseason due to injuries and there are plenty of excuses for why the team got off to a rough start.

The team has since regrouped and aren’t as terrible as they started off. Things have slowly improved to the point where in December the team ranked in the top five in terms of team defense. Will they be an elite team on the defensive team? Nope! But come playoff time they’ll have a defensive system in place that they can compete and possibly even surprise a team or two.

Also worth noting is the team threw out a zone defense against Milwaukee on Friday that completely frustrated the Bucks. Look for Triano to possibly throw it out again on Sunday against Los Angeles.

2) What is the local feeling on Bosh? Is it that he’ll stay, that he’s gone and should be traded now to get something back, or something else?

I don’t think even Bosh knows what he’ll do this summer so it’s impossible for me to give an educated answer to that question. Sorry.

Does the fact Bosh is keeping an open mind mean Bryan Colangelo will panic and deal him? I doubt it. Based on the law of diminishing returns it makes no sense at this point to deal Bosh unless it’s a good deal for Toronto. Look for the team to ride out the remainder of the season, try to resign him in July and if they can’t the team will work a sign-and-trade with the team that wants to sign him. Even if he bolts town they’ll have a ton of money to put some solid pieces back onto the roster.

Raptors blogs Check out Raptors Republic, these guys are good and hitting it hard in the Great White North.

Keys to game: Toronto is a good offensive team and they are going to score points. If Bargani plays (he’s a game time decision) he’s a big that can stretch the floor with his shooting, always a problem for the Lakers.

Toronto has played a lot of zone defense lately to cover their man-to-man weaknesses. The Lakers need to attack the soft middle of the zone — not with post isolation but with guys flashing into the key, and some high-low would be nice as well. Also, the Lakers shooters are going to have to knock down a few shots over the top of the zone, but they can’t start to settle for that shot every time down.

Where you can watch: 3 p.m. start here out west, on KCAL 9. Plus, ESPN radio 710am.