Records: Lakers 31-31 (9th in the West), Raptors 24-38 (9th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.7 (8th in the NBA), Raptors 103.3 (T 11th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.9 (18th in the NBA), Raptors 104.4 (T 22nd in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Raptors: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valanciunas
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Raptors: Linas Kleiza (out), Mickael Pietrus (out)
Keys to game: The story of the night is that the Lakers have the chance to go over the .500 mark for the first time since they were 6-5, a span of 108 calendar days. (As an aside, that was also D’Antoni’s 1st game on the Lakers’ bench.) The motivation, then, to get this win should be high. The Lakers have been playing well — especially in games that are close late — and it’s led to a nice string of wins. If they can start to bring more of that late game focus and execution to earlier parts of the contest, a streak of W’s could be on the horizon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we all remember the start of the Hornets game.
And speaking of the Hornets, the Raptors actually have a very similar statistical profile to the team from New Orleans. Toronto is ranked in the top 15 off Offensive Efficiency and are in the bottom third of the league in Defensive Efficiency. This profile is the type of team that can hurt the Lakers, should they lack focus or not be ready to execute from the outset. The Raptors have the weapons to keep up on offense (especially against an up and down Laker D) and the fact that they’re record is poor doesn’t matter as much when playing between the lines.
Furthermore, the Raptors are a different (and better) team than the one that actually beat the Lakers on that matinee game earlier this year. No, they don’t have Jose Calderon (who absolutely torched the Lakers) or Ed Davis (who was very good too), but they are healthier (Bargnani and Valanciunas didn’t play in that game) have upgraded their wing athleticism by acquiring Rudy Gay. Gay is a player who has given the Lakers some trouble over his career and, now that he’s with the Raptors, he’s being used at both Forward spots in order to maximize his versatility and to stretch out team’s defenses to open up the middle for some of the Raptors other attack players.
All of this combines to make the Raptors somewhat of a dangerous team, even if on the face of the match up they wouldn’t appear to be.
In order to win this game, then, look for the Lakers to try and work the match ups in their advantage and find ways to attack the Raptors defense with quick hitting actions that get them inside. The Kobe/Dwight P&R, as it did against the Hornets, can pay real dividends against this team — especially if they’re able to draw Valanciunas away from the rim and get Kobe attacking him in space. The young Center has good feet and can do a good job of bottling up penetration, but he also averages 5 fouls per 36 minutes and doesn’t often get the benefit of the whistle. If Kobe can occupy him with his dribble, Dwight may get some good chances to get the ball diving to the rim against a back side defense that will prominently feature the rotations of Andre Bargnani.
Another way to take advantage of that back side help is to send cutters from the weak side when Kobe is working the opposite side post and for the team’s wings to hit some of the open three pointers they’re sure to get. This makes Earl Clark, Jamison, and MWP pretty important players tonight as they’re the guys who won’t be the focus of the defense with Kobe, Dwight, and Nash are involved in strong side actions. If Clark and Jamison can find ways to sneak into the paint on the back side and all three can hit enough jumpers, the Lakers offense should be able to create the cushion they need to win this game.
Defensively the Lakers’ success will almost totally rely on their ability to stop the Raptors in isolation. Since the trade that sent Calderon away and brought Rudy Gay in, the Raptors have become more isolation dependent and will use that type of action to get their points. Gay, DeRozan, Bargnani, and Lowry all have the ability to score in one on one situations and they’ll look to attack their man — especially if that player isn’t a good defender. So, look for Lowry to attack Nash and for whoever Jamison is guarding to try and be extra assertive tonight. Also look for Rudy Gay and DeRozan to work down on the block to try and get baskets from inside 15 feet.
This style of play puts a greater emphasis on Dwight’s ability to step up and rotate into the paint to slow down these moves and for the guys behind him to rotate over and help clean up the glass. Amir Johnson will feast on the offensive glass if no one is there to put a body on him, so just as Dwight will need to have his teammates’ back, they’ll also need to have his. If Dwight can come anywhere close to being the force he was in the 4th quarter of the Hornets’ game, the Lakers should be in good shape tonight.
This isn’t to say the P&R won’t be a threat as Lowry will still try and create in this action too. But he’s very fond of turning the corner and being aggressive in looking for his own shot rather than playing with the type of tempo that creates shots for others. Whenever he’s attacking, the defense should be thinking shot first and rotate to him, as their primary read, and then work hard to recover should a pass come. But, again, the key is slowing down their isolation attack — especially when they go small — and then go from there.
As stated earlier this is a game many will think is an automatic win. But a loss to this team earlier in the year and the unsteady start to the Hornets’ game should eliminate that line of thinking. The Lakers are clear favorites, but with that designation comes the need to back it up with a good start and sustained energy throughout.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.