After a couple of days off — the first of which involved Luke Walton not holding a practice the day after his team’s disappointing loss to the Mavericks — the Lakers are back on the court tonight against the Raptors. And while the Lakers may not be as bad as they seem, that might not matter with the quality of opponent they will face tonight.
The East’s second best team may be coming off back to back losses (Warriors and Suns on back to back nights), but before that they’d won 4 in a row and 8 of 10 games. They hold the league’s most efficient offense, a defense in the top half of the NBA, and the league’s 2nd best efficiency differential. They are a load to deal with, offering top end talent, depth, and underrated coaching.
Are they a player away from challenging the Cavs for the title as best of the East? Yes. Imagine Paul Millsap on this team. Or Serge Ibaka. Or…DeMarcus Cousins. Any of those three would do wonders to balance the perimeter/paint attack and allow them to even further stagger their lineups which already has PG Kyle Lowry staying on with the reserves to form one of the most potent secondary lineups in the league. This is a topic for another day, but in a league which is hurting for a couple of more challengers to the Warriors and Cavs, the Raptors are on the tier below but with a key roster addition could join that group.
Returning to tonight’s game, then, this spells trouble. As we know, the Lakers have not been playing well for complete games for a long stretch now. A bad quarter or particularly poor stretch have sunk them against many opponents, undoing any positives they’ve exhibited for the rest of the game. The Raptors are particularly suited to capitalize on any poor stretch because they not only have a very good starting group but, as noted earlier, also have a nice bench unit which can bury opponents.
If the Lakers have one of their poor stretches, they are unlikely to win. And, let’s face it, even if they play well throughout, a win is still going to be difficult. The Raps are just better, not only at the team level but in terms of the individual talent they have on the roster. Simply by looking at how strong their offense is versus how poorly the Lakers’ defense has played of late makes the outcome of this game pretty clear even before tip off.
Does this mean the Lakers have no chance? No, but a lot of things need to go right for them to stay in the game. For one, they will need sustained production from D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle in the starting group. Russell came out strong against the Mavs, but could not replicate that early play in the 2nd half. Against Lowry and DeRozan, back court scoring is important and that means Russell will need to bring some scoring punch.
The other key for the Lakers is for their 2nd unit to find some defensive presence. With Larry Nance out, this means Thomas Robinson and Luol Deng take on a greater importance as the back line defenders. Their rotations and communication must be sharp, especially when calling out switches and when recovering back to the paint to help on drives then when hitting the glass. On this unit, Clarkson and Williams will need to carry them offensively, not only with their scoring but in keeping their teammates involved. This hasn’t been a strength of theirs this year (at least for Clarkson), but getting Ingram and Deng some spot up chances and Robinson some easy baskets around the rim can help boost the overall O.
Speaking of Ingram, I’d like to see him get a few more chances on the move going to the basket — especially as a cutter/slasher rather than in isolation. Ingram’s shooting has been bad all year and it hasn’t really mattered what situations he’s getting his shots. That said, he’s been underutilized as a cutter. I think getting him some chances going towards the paint with a head of steam where he can either finish above the rim or draw fouls could help him find a flow.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.