Records: Lakers 20-7 (3rd in West), Raptors 10-17 (10th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.2 (1st in NBA), Raptors 107.6 (13th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.1 (11th in NBA), Raptors 110.8 (25th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Raptors: Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan, Linas Kleiza, Amir Johnson, Andrea Bargnani
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Raptors: Reggie Evans & Peja Stojakavic (out); Sonny Weems & Andrea Bargnani (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: Four straight wins on the road signal that the Lakers are indeed finding their groove again. But it’s not just the wins, it’s how they’re getting them. Most of the victories have been controlled dominance where deliberate execution on both sides of the ball has led to leads being established an then held onto, producing comfortable closing margins. Even against Philly – a game where the Lakers couldn’t find a foothold to gain any traction for most of the contest – turned into a double digit margin as they condensed their winning formula and executed it in the final 12 minutes rather than over the course of the entire game.
So as I’ve been writing a lot lately, things are looking up for the Lakers as they’ve started to settle into the team that many expected when they’re completely healthy. They’re defending better and on offense they’ve gotten back to the basics of the Triangle while still going to their match up advantages to feature their best players in situations that they can exploit. Yes, the level of competition hasn’t been elite, but I’ve always said that a team can only play the opponents on the schedule so getting the win is what’s important. The Lakers are getting it done right now and that’s really all that matters.
The Raptors Coming in: Since the last time the Lakers faced the Raps, they’ve gone through some changes in personnel due to trades and injury. Bruising rebounder Reggie Evans has been sidelined with an injured foot and is still recovering from surgery to repair the damage. Meanwhile, Jarrett Jack (along with Marcus Banks and David Andersen) was dealt away to the Hornets for Jerryd Bayless and Peja Stojakovic. The trade allowed the Raps to clear up their point guard rotation as the reigns of the team are now squarely in the hands of Jose Calderon while also allowing the Raps to open up some cap space with Peja’s expiring deal.
Despite the trade, though, this team is still not performing that well overall. They’re still young and taking their lumps as they’re able to compete hard but not able to pull out as many victories as they’d like. Their December schedule has been rather tough too (they’ve played the Knicks, Bulls, Nuggets, and Pacers) and only have 2 wins to show in the 7 contests this month, including losses in two of their last three games.
On the bright side, they’ve got young talent that should only improve as the season progresses. DeRozan looks like a real keeper and, while he may not ever live up to the expectations of a #1 overall pick, Bargnani is real offensive threat and is trying harder on defense and when rebounding. Sonny Weems is also a nice rotation player and a very hard worker that will continue to contribute as a solid wing. If they continue to improve at the pace they’ve already show, this team will be also improve and will only need to find that one player that can anchor their team. (Which, I know, can be said for most teams. But I’d rather have a nucleus of hard workers that are ready to take that next step when that key player arrives than not.)
Keys to game: When these two teams faced off in the Lakers’ 6th game of the year, our guys were able to pull out the victory even though they didn’t play their best ball. The Lakers were crushed on the glass as Reggie Evans did what he does best leading his team’s assault on the opposition’s defensive backboards. The Raptors – especially Jarrett Jack – also pushed the pace on the Lakers and attacked the paint at every opportunity in both the open and half court, forcing the Lakers’ bigs to help on penetration. This all conspired to generate second chance points by the Raps as the Lakers were consistently getting beat to the ball by the Raps bigs or being forced out of their rebounding position to help on guards that beat perimeter defenders.
Today, the Lakers will need to shore up these deficiencies if they hope to have an easier go of it than they did in early November. Luckily, both Evans and Jack are not playing, but that doesn’t mean that Amir Johnson or Bayless won’t try to replicate what was successful for this team the last time out. So, building a wall around the paint and attacking the defensive glass should be high priorities against the Raps.
The Lakers defense will also be tested by the Raptors pick and pop game between Calderon and Bargnani. We’ll see if Phil deploys Odom or Gasol on the sharp shooting big man, but either player will need to help and recover effectively to ensure that Bargs doesn’t get wide open looks from beyond the arc. They’ll also need help from their mates to ensure that if they’re recovering to their own man that rotations behind them are crisp so that easy driving lanes are blocked off and Calderon/Bayless don’t get easy paths to the basket.
Offensively, the Lakers need to attack the paint. Whether off the bounce or via post ups, the ball should being going inside early and often. The Raptors don’t have capable shot blockers to consistently slow down the inside games of Gasol, Odom, Bynum, or Kobe so getting deep post position or driving hard to the rim should constitute a big portion of these players’ offensive attacks. In order to open up the post and those driving lanes, the Lakers will need to move the ball effectively to get the defense moving from side to side. If the Lakers try to just make one pass and go at the D, Toronto will have a much easier time of stacking their help and contesting this initial action. So move the ball around and good things will happen.
Lastly and as mentioned earlier, controlling tempo will again play a major role in who wins this game. I’ve mentioned Bayless, but DeRozan and Barbosa are attack players that love to get out in the open court and are effective off the dribble in the half court as well. They’ll look for any opportunity to speed up the game and make this into a track meet where their quickness and overall athleticism can counter the Lakers’ superior size and strength. The Lakers need to ensure that their transition defense is disciplined and effectively get back on D. They’ll also be able to slow the Raptors in the open court by balancing the floor and showing patience on offense as this will lead to good shots and even better offensive rebounding chances – both of which will make run outs less likely.
Where you can watch: 10am start time out west on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.