The Lakers improbably climbed back to .500 on Wednesday, beating the Bulls in an ugly game which saw both teams struggle to score. Of course, ugly wins count the same as the most beautiful ones so I’ll take the result happily. Underscoring/what led to the poor aesthetics was that the Bulls game offered some of the best defense the Lakers played all season. So, I guess if you’re 90’s Knicks era Pat Riley, you might have found the game to be prettier than most.
Wednesday is long gone, though. Or at least it needs to be when the Lakers are now in Toronto to play the Raptors on the first night of another back to back that has them in Memphis on Saturday. Regardless of how good the Grizz are (and with Mike Conley out, they are much worse than they were just a few days ago), that game will be the team’s 4th in 5 nights all in different cities while crisscrossing the continent (New Orleans to Chicago to Toronto to Memphis).
So, if the Lakers hope to go (at least) 2-2 on this trip, getting a win in Toronto is likely to be the best way to make that happen. Of course, considering the Raptors are 12-6 (2nd best in the East), that is easier said than done. When you consider their personnel and how they like to attack teams, the chances decrease further.
The Raptors are driven by their dynamic back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both all-star level players who can hurt you in multiple ways. Lowry can bomb from distance and also get to the paint to finish, while also playing dogged defense. DeRozan, meanwhile, is playing a throwback game which relies heavily on mid-range jumpers out of isolations, P&R’s, and post ups. His shot chart looks like the three point line doesn’t even exist, doing damage from both elbows and the shallow corners along the baseline.
Outside of those two, Toronto has massive big man Jonas Valanciunas, shooting PF Patrick Patterson, and a nice group of complimentary role players — including backup guards Cory Joseph and Terrence Ross. All of these guys concern me, but I am especially intrigued with Valanciunas and Ross. They are the team’s 3rd and 4th leading scorers respectively and both have the ability to hurt the Lakers with their respective games.
Valanciunas can score in the post, as a dive man in the P&R, and via put backs on the offensive glass. Again, he’s just a big dude and when he gets position it is hard to root him out. If the Lakers surrender too much dribble penetration, he will be lurking on the weakside and it will be up to the helping guards/wings to dig down, infringe on his space, and contest those rebounds.
As for Ross, he’s shooting 43% from distance on nearly 4 attempts per game this year. He is their most prolific outside shooter and the spacing he provides — especially in lineups with Patterson or DeMarre Carroll at PF — can allow Jonas to work the post while also giving DeRozan and Lowry the space they need to attack the paint. The Lakers will need to mark Ross and be cognizant of where and how he moves around the floor to ensure they do not give him too many open looks.
Considering all of the above, certain players take on some key roles tonight. First, is Brandon Ingram who is likely to start at SG and match up with DeRozan defensively. Ingram will need to use his length, contest shots without fouling, and try to not get bullied with DeRozan takes him to the post or drives him to the elbows. The second player who will matter a great deal is Mozgov. When the Lakers have played teams with strong big men, Luke has leaned on Timo harder, often leaving him in later in games to play post defense and contest rebounds better. This cannot be a night where he gets in foul trouble.
Lastly, with Russell out and now Young also injured, the Lakers have become even more dependent on the scoring, playmaking, and leadership of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Lou Williams. Those three need to play well nightly for the Lakers to even have a chance of winning. In their specific matchups tonight, I am looking for Randle to be able to space out defensively to find Patterson behind the arc while still recovering to the paint to rebound, for Williams to continue to hit shots to carry a heavier offensive load, and for Clarkson to up his playmaking and make Ross work defensively.
Ultimately, this is not a game the Lakers should win. Toronto is at home, has won 4 in a row, and are more rested. That said, the Lakers continue to surprise and by playing hard they seem to find themselves in games that they probably shouldn’t be. Maybe that trend continues tonight.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.