Preview and Chat: The Toronto Raptors

Darius Soriano —  February 12, 2012

Records: Lakers 15-12 (7th in West), Raptors 9-19 (11th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.0 (14th in NBA), Raptors 97.3 (28th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.0 (11th in NBA), Raptors 103.6 (18th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Raptors: Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan, James Johnson, Amir Johnson, Aaron Gray
Injuries: Lakers: none; Raptors: Andrea Bargnani (out), Jerryd Bayless (doubtful)

The Lakers Coming in: The long journey that started over a week ago comes to an end today. And, it’s just in time. The Lakers are coming off a tough loss to the Knicks where offensive struggles and defensive lapses weren’t helped by fatigued legs stemming from the previous night’s overtime win against the Celtics. The loss moved them to two and three on their grammy road trip and was indicative of their one step forward, one step backward approach to this season. The Lakers simply can’t find any traction in this campaign.

The Raptors Coming in: The Raptors have lost three of their last five but are coming off a win over the Celtics on Friday. That win, though, has been a rare occurrence this season – especially in games that franchise cornerstone Andrea Bargnani has missed. The former number one overall pick has only played in 13 games this year and in the games he’s missed the Raptors are 3-12. This isn’t a coincidence either. In previous seasons Bargnani has been much maligned for being a one dimensional player that couldn’t even really carry his team with that one dimension (his ability to score the ball). This season, though, was different. Bargs’ rebounding numbers still weren’t that great, but he’d become a more efficient scorer and was definitely playing like “the man” on that side of the ball. His defense had also improved and he was looking very much like a player that could lead a quality team, turning into the player that the Raptors thought he could be when he was drafted. The fact that he’s been out has really hurt this team.

This isn’t to say the Raptors aren’t still fighting hard each night, though. New coach Dwayne Casey (poached from the Mavericks’ coaching staff) has instilled a new mindset with this group, focusing on defense and bringing more structure to the offensive side of the ball. Some may look at the Raptors 18th ranked defense (in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions) but that’s a big step up from a defense that ranked dead last a season ago with essentially the same group of players. Getting this team completely turned around isn’t an easy task and Casey still has a long way to go but he’s well on his way in his first season. With some deft personnel moves and some improvement from players that they like (especially DeRozan – who has taken a step back this year) this team can take another step forward in the coming seasons and compete for a playoff spot within a season or two.

Raptors Blogs: Check out Raptors Republic for all your news and notes.

Keys to game: If there were ever a game where the Lakers simply need to come out and play hard, this is it. The last game of the road trip (and the first game back from a road trip) is often a difficult one because the team is sick and tired of all the travel and a sense of just wanting to go home can set in. The fact that this game is on at 10am west coast time only makes matters worse as the Lakers simply aren’t used to suiting up and playing competitive basketball at this hour. I mean, the Lakers are used to going through their shoot around at this time, not going full speed.

So, effort is key. So is offensive execution. Against the Knicks, the Lakers big men did little to earn the type of position that would have aided their cause in getting easier shots (especially Andrew Bynum). Today, the Lakers’ bigs must run hard, do their work before they catch the ball, and get deep into the post against a Raptors front line that isn’t that great defensively. The bigs also need to set better screens for the perimeter players to free up their mates and help set up the offense better. Too often this season the big men aren’t getting good picks on or off the ball and it’s led to passes being denied which then gums up the offense. The bigs need to better free Kobe off the ball and free up Blake and Goudelock in the P&R to get those guys into open space which will then force help and subsequently help them get open as well.

Defensively, the Lakers have fewer players to worry about with Bargnani out, but that doesn’t mean the Raps don’t have any threats. Jose Calderon is a good floor general and is the league leader in assist to turnover ratio. He’s precise in the half court, setting up his guys for good looks and running the P&R well as a dual threat that can either get off his own shot or collapse the defense and kick out to shooters. So, the Lakers must be prepared to deal with Calderon and try to force him into spots on the floor (to the wing, rather than the top of the key) where he can’t make effective passes to either side of the floor without having to skip the ball over the Lakers length. The Lakers must also play him to take the jumper so going under screens is a no-no and instead must chase him over the top of picks to make sure he can’t come off clean and shoot his mid-range jumper. By forcing him to drive into Pau and Bynum, they can limit his effecitveness.

The Raptors also have the ability to change the pace and push the ball so the Lakers must be aware in transition. Barbosa, DeRozan, and even Kleiza can all get out in the open court and can finish in a variety of ways. We’re all familiar with Barbosa’s game from his Suns days and while he may not have his top gear anymore (at one time he was probably the fastest player in the league going coast to coast) he can still push the ball and get into the paint to score when given the lane. The Lakers must build a wall against him and force him to shoot outside jumpers. The same is true of DeRozan, a player that’s tried to expand his game by shooting more jumpers but still hasn’t improved enough to be an all court threat. The Lakers need to try and keep him out of the paint and mark him in the open court to not give up easy baskets at the rim. Kleiza is a streak shooter that can get hot from behind the arc quickly (I still have visions of him nailing jumper after jumper from those Nuggets playoff series a few years ago) and he must be found in transition running to the three point line.

Ultimately, though, this is a game where the Lakers simply need to come out ready to play and match the effort of the home team. If they do so, their talent should win out. If they don’t, a loss may be on the horizon. Traditionally the Lakers have come out slow in this same early game scenario (this early game has become a tradition over the years) but today the Lakers can’t afford that. Their margin for error is slimmer than in season’s past and any hole dug is harder to get out of. Here’s hoping they’re ready.

Where you can watch: 10:00am start time on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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