Preview and Chat: The Toronto Raptors

Darius Soriano —  January 19, 2013

Records: Lakers 17-22 (11th in the West), Raptors 14-26 (12th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.1 (6th in the NBA), Raptors 103.2 (12th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (T 17th in the NBA), Raptors 104.8 (25th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Raptors: Jose Calderon, Landry Fields, DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Raptors: Andrea Bargnani (out), Linas Kleiza (out), Jonas Valanciunas (out)

The Lakers Coming in: Though the Lakers lost a tough game to the Heat in their last contest, they’ve been playing better of late. Their intensity on defense has led to better all around play on that side of the ball, with fewer breakdowns resulting in more consistent performances on that end. Dwight Howard’s had three rather impactful games in a row, Kobe (despite struggling to contain Dywane Wade) has spearheaded the uptick in perimeter pressure, and the team has successfully been able to hide Steve Nash on non-threats who haven’t been able to hurt the Lakers. Whether this strategy can show long term success remains to be seen, but it’s certainly their best formula to produce good short term results.

Offensively, they remain a high functioning work in progress. The team is running many more high P&R’s with Nash and Howard starting to build the chemistry they’ll need for long term success. Kobe is working well off the ball, getting catch and shoot chances that he’s capitalizing on. The role players seem to be finding their niche more and more. That said, there are still things to be concerned about that need to be worked on.

Pau Gasol has to find a consistent role sooner or later. In this offense he seems to do his best work as a distributor from the elbows and as an isolation worker from the low block. Neither of these options are part of D’Antoni’s primary actions and must be integrated into the flow of the offense more consistently to get the most out of Pau. In the last two games, Steve Nash has gotten trapped more coming out of the P&R and that’s led to disruptions to the timing in the sets and made creating good looks harder. If the Lakers are to be at their best on O, they must sort out how to deal with increasing ball pressure on Nash and find ways to use Pau’s full skill set. If these things don’t happen, we’re only going to hear more rumblings of people (mainly Pau) questioning their role and late game struggles like they saw against the Heat.

The Raptors Coming in: The Raps have lost 4 in a row and 6 of their last 8 against a pretty good slate of teams. Like the Lakers, they’ve been hit with the injury bug this season, with prized rookie Jonas Valanciunas breaking a bone in his hand, Linas Kleiza missing time with a sore knee, and Andrea Bargnani out with a sore elbow. The Valanciunas injury probably hurts the most solely because he needs all the court time he can get in order to grow as a player by learning the NBA game.

Even accounting for the injuries, however, this team has underperformed this year. Before the season started there were hopes this team could make a push for the playoffs, with a solid roster mix of veterans and young prospects. This, though, hasn’t been close to happening. While there are individual players stepping up (Calderon, Davis, Amir Johnson) and others taking incremental steps forward (DeRozan, rookie Terrence Ross), this team simply hasn’t found that elusive chemistry they looked to be building last season. They look more like a team that has two of everything at each position and haven’t quite yet figured out how to play together to maximize the roster.

Whether they sort it out this year remains to be seen. When Bargnani first got injured they looked to take a positive step forward (with calls to trade the former #1 overall pick coming soon after), but have since had that recent skid. They do look like a better team without Bargnani (who has plateaued as a player) and maybe a move is what’s best for them. In the end, we’ll see if they decide to try and deal some of their assets to better position themselves for the future (they’ve already traded next season’s 1st round pick for Kyle Lowry) or if they’ll try to make a push before the end of the year. Either way, this team looks to be one in transition that needs to figure out who they’ll be in the coming seasons. Getting healthy will help, but so will some direction from ownership and the front office.

Raptors Blogs: Check out Raptors Republic for all your news and analysis on this team.

Keys to game: The early start throws a monkey wrench into any sort of analysis about this game. Because while there are X’s and O’s to discuss, there may not be a more important factor to this game than how the Lakers respond to playing a game at the time they’d normally be having a shootaround.

In year’s past, the Lakers have done alright adjusting to these early starts, but there’s only so much history can guide you here. The Lakers have turned over their roster by so much that there are only a few Lakers who have actually played this early contest before (Kobe, Pau, and Ron being the main ones). Coming out with the right amount of energy and sustaining it through the entire contest will mean just as much (if not more) as any sort of tactical variables that are part of the game plan.

That said, execution will matter. The Lakers must find a way to get the ball inside early and often to take advantage of Davis and Johnson in the paint. Both are having good seasons and both are capable defenders, but neither have the sheer size or length to battle Howard and Pau down low for the entire game. The Raps will sub in Aaron Gray, but his lack of quickness can be exposed in the P&R and in transition, so Dwayne Casey will need to be careful in how he deploys his burly back up center.

On the wing, the Lakers would be wise to take some of Kobe’s advice by moving him around more and working him into spots on the floor where he can be a threat without having to do a lot of work to create his own shot. Quick post ups, back cuts, pin downs, and ball reversals where he can catch and shoot are all preferred over isolations where he has to beat his man and then deal with help in order to score. Even though he will have to isolate some, the team will be much better off getting him the ball where a quick move leads to a shot rather than having him handling the ball looking to create his own above the three point line.

Defensively, I fully expect the Lakers to continue to cross match. We’ll likely see Kobe on Calderon, Ron on DeRozan, and Nash guarding Landry Fields. And while I think these are matchups that can work in the Lakers’ favor, one thing to watch is how Kobe deals with the patient attack that Calderon directs. Kobe will have to navigate countless ball screens while on the Spaniard and will have to find ways to harass him through those picks in order to not let Calderon get to his spots where he can both hit shots and create looks for his teammates. Calderon is an excellent — though selective — shooter and one of the better set up men in the league. If Kobe can’t corral him, the Lakers’ D will be in for a long day.

Lastly, the battle of the benches will be big in this one. While injuries have hurt some of the Raptors’ depth, they still bring some talent off the pine. Kyle Lowry is a bulldog on both ends of the floor and has the ability to change the tempo of the game with his attacking style. Rookie Terrence Ross has a nice jumper and can be an explosive finisher in the open court. Alan Anderson also brings some scoring punch to their second unit and must be marked when he’s on the floor. If the Lakers’ reserves don’t bring the same energy they’ve had in recent games, they may be the drag on the team that is the difference between a win and a loss.

This is the first game of a 3 game roadie for the Lakers and the exact type of game they need to win in the best interests of their long term playoff prospects. The Raptors are a good team at home and when you account for the early start time, they must not be taken lightly. The Lakers must use this game to springboard them into the last two games of their trip where they face two really good teams (Bulls, Grizzlies). Getting a win is, simply put, imperative.

Where you can watch: 10:00am start time on the West Coast so grab some coffee and tune into TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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