The Lakers coming in: What’s that? The Lakers won their last game? The last time the team could say that was 7 games ago so this is, indeed (and sadly), news. The Lakers downed the hated Celtics, so even those rooting (or at least ambivalent) to losing can feel good about the W. An 11-0 run to close the game turned what would have been another frustrating loss into a feel good win.
One of the key players in the win was rookie Ryan Kelly who had his best night as a pro, scoring a career high 20 points. For his efforts Kelly will earn a start against the Raptors, bringing his shooting range and solid offensive aptitude to the first five. Kelly earning the nod shows that Mike D’Antoni is still searching for a starting group that can play to the style that he prefers while also pointing towards the Lakers taking the long view in terms of player development. Kelly’s future in this league is unknown at this point so it is in the Lakers’ best interests to get as much useful information as they can on what it may be. Considering the team isn’t going much of anywhere this season, getting as much intel on all their question mark players should be a goal.
That doesn’t bode well for veterans like Jordan Hill or Chris Kaman who will see their minutes reduced as Kelly (and maybe even Wes Johnson) see minutes at PF. Hill and Kaman have been good soldiers this year and having them spend more time on the bench than they should at this point in their careers can’t feel good. But this is where the Lakers are this year — they will try to win games, but with the talent they have at their disposal, they will also try to develop the younger players on their roster to try and learn if they can be role players on a team with higher aspirations than this year’s outfit.
The Raptors coming in: The Raptors are the third seed in the East, sitting two games over .500 at 20-18. They’ve gotten to that point by winning 11 of their last 15 games which was aided ditching Rudy Gay’s ball stopping in a trade with the Kings (where Rudy is thriving, by the way). Losing Gay has been addition by subtraction where DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry now have the ball more to optimize the team’s perimeter play and where the big men — Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas — see the ball more as a result.
But while the offense will get the most pub — and it should be noted the team is playing very well on that end of the floor — it’s really their defense that we should be paying attention to. The Raptors boast the league’s 5th stingiest defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions and, over their last 15 games have been even better than that. In that 11-4 stretch, the team has only been allowing opponents to score 96.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank them 2nd in the league behind the Pacers if they performed at that level all season. They are athletic all over the floor, have good length at nearly every position and Dwayne Casey has them playing with a single mind on that end.
If this continues, the Raps will not only make the playoffs but may hold onto one of the top 4 seeds.
Keys to the game: Friday’s win over the C’s was nice, but a single win doesn’t erase what the Lakers have been lately. As mentioned, the Raps have won 11 games in their last 15. The Lakers have won 3 in their last 15. The quality difference between these teams is real. Add in that this game will be played at a time of day that the Lakers would normally be holding a their morning shoot around if they were in California and the prospects of winning aren’t high.
That said, the Lakers do have some momentum from Friday and carrying over that good feeling can help them in this game. They will need to play with energy and play for each other on both sides of the ball. Much like they did against the C’s, making shots from the outside will be the key offensively. Pau can continue to put up good numbers, but if he’s not supported by the perimeter guys hitting three pointers, it will all be for naught. Meeks, Marshall, Johnson, and Nick Young — who will be back from suspension — will all need to be their best from behind the arc.
Defensively the Lakers will have their hands full dealing with DeRozan and Lowry. In the past several games, the Lakers have tried to hide Kendall Marshall on lesser SG’s while Meeks guards the primary threats at point guard. Against Toronto, however, there is no one to hide Marshall on. Lowry is a bulldog of a PG and will attack Marshall off the dribble in isolation and in the P&R. DeRozan will take Meeks inside on penetration and via post-ups, using his size advantage to create shots in the paint. The Lakers can try guys like Young and Johnson on DeRozan and their size should help, but in the end the Raps’ SG is having such a good year that likely won’t be enough.
With the Raps having superior wing play, the Lakers bigs will have the dual responsibilities of helping their teammates via paint protection while also trying to rebound their position. This year they’ve not been able to do this well enough, hence the Lakers’ issues on the defensive glass. If that trend holds true in this game, Valanciunas and Johnson will have big days on the boards and really hurt the Lakers with second chance points. The team’s guards and wings will really need to help on the glass or it really will be a long day.
Where you can watch: 9am start time on the west coast so grab your coffee and tune into TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.