Records: Lakers 7-1, Raptors 6-2
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.0 (17th), Raptors 109.3 (7th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 96.5 (1st), Raptors 102.9 (10th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Raptors: Fred VanVleet, Norm Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: Rajon Rondo (doubtful); Raptors: Kyle Lowry (out), Serge Ibaka (out), Patrick McCaw (out)
Lakers coming in: The Lakers winning streak is up to 7 games after a 95-80 victory over the Heat. The Lakers used suffocating defense and strong performances from Anthony Davis and LeBron James to close the door on Miami by picking apart their zone defense in the 2nd half.
Not all winning streaks are the same, but a key thing being revealed over the course of this one is that the Lakers are proving to have many different ways to win even if there are core concepts that prevail. Of course having LeBron and AD as centerpieces are key. And the Lakers’ defense is proving to be foundational to their success. But, a thing that has stood out to me over these 7 games is that on any given night it can be a different player or two, or, in the case of the Bulls game, an entire lineup that makes a difference in putting the Lakers over the top.
Many have questioned the Lakers depth and, to a certain extent, I think that’s fair. This team is not proving to have a consistent core of 2-3 role players who play up to a certain level of effectiveness each night (beyond Danny Green and Dwight Howard). That said, on any given night one or two step up to play well enough to offer a needed boost and when you can add that to what Bron and AD are giving you, it’s often enough to put them in position to win.
Said another way, while the Lakers do not have guys who are clearly their 4th-8th best players, they have anywhere between 4-6 guys who are clearly 7th-9th man type of guys. Those types of players are not always consistent and it’s problematic when you have to really depend on one of them, individually, for production nightly. But, players of this type do have nights where they can play up a level or two and when you have that number of players who offer that quality like the Lakers do, you can switch and swap them out when one or more have it going to really make a difference.
Over the course of this streak, Vogel has done just that and it’s paid dividends. So, credit to him. But, also, in a weird way credit these guys — one or more of them always seem to be ready to make a few plays that make a difference in a game. And while that’s not the most conventional way to win games, it’s been working so far.
Raptors coming in: The reigning champs deserve credit. After losing Kawhi in the off-season, no one would have blamed this team for coming out and sort of going through the motions of being the feel good team who won it all last year, but knew they weren’t going to be as good this year. Some uninspired play could have followed and, as NBA fans, we all would have accepted it as how things go when you lose on the game’s best players, the reigning Finals MVP, for nothing in free agency.
The Raptors, though, took this as an opportunity to show their real quality and have jumped out to a 6-2 record and are currently 2nd in the east to start the season. Pascal Siakam has taken another leap forward, Kyle Lowry has been wonderful, OG Anunoby has returned from the appendicitis that kept him out during last season’s playoff run as a contributing role player, and Fred VanVleet decided he was going to show the world that his play during the Finals was not a fluke.1It’s also a contract year for FVV, so he’s also playing like he cannot wait to collect a Malcom Brogdon sized bag next summer. Toronto is currently 7th in offense, 10th in defense, and playing like the team who went 17-5 in the 22 games that Kawhi load-managed last season.
That said, the Raptors are banged up severely heading into this game and that’s something they’re going to have to manage for the next few weeks. Kyle Lowry just suffered a small fracture in his thumb and Serge Ibaka is dealing with an ankle issue. That’s two of Toronto’s top 6 players and there’s really no one on the roster to replace them specifically.
In the wake of Kawhi leaving, the Raptors took gambles on former Pistons lottery pick Stanley Johnson and former Net Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but those two have not yet cracked the rotation after a preseason that saw head coach Nick Nurse critique them heavily for not playing hard or getting up to speed quickly enough on the team’s schemes. Both could end up seeing minutes tonight due to how injured the team is, but it remains to be seen how effective they’d be even if they do get an opportunity.
Keys to the game: The Raptors injuries make this game tricky to project. That said, I’ll be watching two matchups closely: AD vs. Siakam and LeBron vs. Anunoby.
The Siakam/AD matchup has a chance to be incredibly entertaining. AD has not yet faced a rangy forward who, in many ways, plays just like he does but with bit with more open court ball handling ability. AD will need to track Siakam all over the floor, defend in space on the ball, and be super aware off the ball to ensure he doesn’t lose track of the always in motion, always looking for a slashing opportunity Siakam.
The other end of the floor, Siakam will have his hands full with AD on the block, in going to the rim, and when pursuing offensive rebounds. It’s rare that Siakam will face a player who offers similar quickness to him, but also brings superior size and strength. That is the challenge Davis brings, though. So, I’ll be watching this machup closely because it could end up being entertaining as hell.
As for Bron/Anunoby, the latter is a strong and long defender who does not have any quit in him. He will challenge Bron at the point of attack from the perimeter to the post and will make him work for every inch. LeBron has been playing so wonderfully to start the year and could end up just dominating this matchup because he’s LeBron and that’s what he does. But, do not be surprised if OG holds his own and makes this matchup harder than ones we’ve seen in recent games.
If this turns into a game where the role players have to step up, I’ll be very interested in seeing how the combo of Green/Bradley do vs. FVV and whether JaVale/Dwight can tag team Marc Gasol effectively. The Lakers have numbers to throw at these matchups, but the Raptors quality should concern here as they have the ability to play up a level that’s difficult for the Lakers guys to reach consistently.
In the end, this could end up being a game that’s closer than the injury report would lead you to believe it should be. The Raptors will play with the pride of a champion even if the roster they have to throw out there won’t always resemble the ones who popped champaign in Oakland this past June. The Lakers would be wise, then, to play to the level of a team that wants to get to the place their opponent just did in last year’s playoffs. If they do that, they should be fine. If they don’t….well, the streak could end.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com