The Lakers have won four straight games and eight of their last 10 overall. They just beat the Bulls on the road, a game that saw Brandon Ingram come up big down the stretch and the team as a whole leverage their transition game and ability to score in the paint on post ups and putbacks while overcoming an extremely hot shooting night from Chicago from behind the arc.
Games like this are a reminder of what the Lakers can be, even if it’s against a similarly talented team who has a poor record overall. Those latter points provide some context for sure, but no more of it than the Lakers ability to build a big lead in the first place or to stare down a surging opponent and play lock-down defense down the stretch to pull out a tough win — all on the road.
So, the Lakers are looking to remain hot, but face a different caliber of opponent Sunday.
The Raptors are quietly — as much as such a thing can be — one of the better teams in the league. Again. At 32-15 they are the 2nd seed in the East and possess the NBA’s 4th best record. They are top five in both Offensive (5th) and Defensive (4th) Rating and have infused several young players into their rotation that are athletic and fit what they want to do on both sides of the ball.
It remains to be seen how all this translates to the playoffs where Toronto has had its issues playing up to the standard they set during the regular season, but that’s an April and May problem. It’s January, and they’re a force.
Slowing this team means keying in on DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry first and foremost. The two all-stars power the Raptors attack, but are doing so in different ways than previous seasons. Toronto has implemented an offensive scheme less reliant on iso play, instead leveraging the playmaking DeRozan and Lowry offer to better move the ball and incorporate their full roster of talent. The Lakers, then, will need to operate on a string defensively, not only ready to help on the Raptors stars, but ready to recover back to their own man and then slide, rotate, and contest shots all over the floor.
Offensively the Lakers will need continue to get out in transition and attack against an unbalanced floor. The Raptors have enough size and shot blocking to shrink the floor and make life hard for the paint happy Lakers in the halfcourt, so seizing open court chances is going to be important. When the game does slow, however, the Lakers will need to still collapse the defense and then hit shots from behind the arc to keep the defense honest. This, of course, is not a strong suit of the Lakers, but if Kuzma, KCP, Lopez, Clarkson, and Hart can make some shots, this could be interesting.
Emphasis on could, though. The Raptors are a fantastic home team and the Lakers are clear underdogs here. Even if they play their best, they’ll need Toronto to falter and/or play down from their normal level for this game to be close or to win it outright. That’s surely possible, but my gut tells me it’s not very likely.
Where you can watch: 3pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.