3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Lakers

The fact of the matter is that Jose Calderon probably doesn’t care that much.

And maybe we shouldn’t either.

But regardless, it’s certainly a head-scratcher as to Joe Johnson’s inclusion on the All-Star team.

Even if TJ had never been hurt, Jose had remained the back-up and neither Raptor PG was in the running for the annual sloppy play-fest in February, I still don’t get how Johnson was selected.

And no Baron Davis or Marcus Camby in the West? Sort of makes you wonder whether letting coaches choose is the right way to go about things after all.

Perhaps Truehoop’s Henry Abbott does the best job of summing up those who were shunned from the celebrations: http://myespn.go.com/blogs/truehoop/0-29-132/Big-Easy--Big-Snub-.html

And I admit I’m still slightly curious as to how CB4 didn’t even mention Jose on national TV, especially when he was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying that it would have meant a lot for him to go to the game with Calderon.

"That would really come out of left field for a lot of people," he said. "It would be great for Jose. There's a lot of great players in the league. To be considered I think it's an honour."

Of course Jose still could make the team if Dwyane Wade opts out, or if Jason Kidd gets traded to a team in the West. Peter Vescey and Rick Kamla were discussing this on NBA TV the night before last and pondering how that would all shape up.

Vescey also provided this classic sound-byte:

"Hey, even if Jason doesn’t get traded to a team in the West, he’s probably on the phone with the East coaches now asking to be traded to the Western All-Star team as they have a better chance of winning the game!"

My hope is that Jose uses this slight as motivation as he leads the team through the rest of the season’s second half. Jose’s not really a "chip on the shoulder" type player but we’ve seen him be as competitive as the next so perhaps Phil Jackson and his Lake-show bear the brunt of Calderon’s anger tonight.

Toronto faces Los Angeles tonight in what is always an entertaining affair between the clubs. It will be a long time before anyone forgets Kobe’s unbelievable 81 point performance obviously but this is hardly the same team that boasted Jalen Rose as Kobe’s defender.

And yet this is still a very dangerous Lakers team, a surprise this year in fact as many, including myself, didn’t even pick them to make the playoffs in the West. Phil Jackson in my opinion is the best coach in the league, and his work with the Shaq-less Laker teams of the past few years has been outstanding. I’m not sure what the proper analogy would be to describe what he's gotten out of this group of players...maybe that Jackson has managed to turn water into wine regarding the rest of Kobe’s crew. They have been up and down of late however and many have attributed this inconsistent play to the lack of Andrew Bynum, the Lakers young pivot who has really come into his own this season.

I asked long-time Lakers’ blogger Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold.com about Bynum’s impact in this week’s instalment of "blogging with the enemy" and here’s what he had to say:

1) RaptorsHQ: Life without Andrew Bynum. Recently on your site you posted your thoughts on the Lakers current struggles.
(http://www.forumblueandgold.com/2008/01/28/looking-at-losing-streak/)

As a Lakers insider, has the difference in these recent games really been the absence of Bynum, or are there other factors involved?

Forum Blue and Gold: There are other factors, but Bynum is by far the largest one. On offense he had become the second option, able to score on the block or at least draw the double team on any possession. Remember, one corner of the much-discussed triangle offense the Lakers run is a post man on the block.

Maybe more importantly, however, is that when Kobe (or Derek Fisher or Lamar Odom or whomever) drove into the paint, the opposing big could not just leave Bynum to block the path to the basket -- the result was a lob and a dunk. Kwame Brown does not inspire that kind of fear. Bynum's emergence opened up the entire offense.

On defense, Bynum's length blocked and altered shots in the paint. His presence allowed the Lakers wing defenders to be more aggressive and take more risks -- if they missed gambling for a steal, Bynum was still there to play goalie.

But with Bynum going down the often timid Lamar Odom has not stepped up (although he did play well last game against the Knicks on Tuesday) and now Luke Walton is injured. Part of the problem for the Lakers is that along with Bynum two key role guys -- Trevor Ariza and Vladamir Radmanovic – also have been down. The once very deep Lakers aren't so deep any more.

2) RaptorsHQ: Considering how deep the West is this year with the improvements in G State, Portland, New Orleans and even Sacramento, where do you see this Lakers club finishing in the standings? With a healthy Bynum and the ever deadly Kobe, how far can you see them advancing?

Forum Blue and Gold: It's so hard to say. As of this writing the 25-20 Houston Rockets (an almost identical record to the Raptors) are 10th in the conference, out of the playoffs, but they are only 7.5 games behind the conference-leading Hornets.

In the East, Orlando is 8.5 back and they are the three seed, Chicago is the 10 seed and are 17.5 off the conference lead. So, there is not a lot of margin for error for the Lakers or anyone else in the West. That said, if the Lakers can tread water until Bynum gets back (combined with a relatively easy schedule the last six weeks) I think they make the playoffs, but with everything so tight predicting seeding is futile.

Once in the playoffs, if the Lakers are healthy, they have an outside chance at a title. I still think the Spurs will turn it on and be the team to beat, but the West is going to be all about match-ups. Dallas struggles with running teams but gives the Spurs fits. The Suns can beat anyone most days but teams with big centers give them fits. The list goes on. It's going to be interesting.

3) RaptorsHQ: Finally, what do you see as the keys to a Lakers win against
Toronto?

Forum Blue and Gold: Well, first off I doubt I need to remind you that Kobe has had some big games against the Raptors, and with Bynum out he will need to pick up some of the scoring slack. Defensively the Raptors also have struggled to contain other team's fours, so Lamar Odom will need to step up and pick up some of the scoring. He is more than capable, but you never know what Odom will show up on any given night.

Really the biggest tell-tale with this Lakers team is defense. They can score plenty just about any night, they have shooters. The problem is that, especially since Bynum went down, the defense has been spotty. Tonight Fisher (and more likely Jordan Farmar off the bench) need to contain those lethal guards. And Kwame Brown needs to be focused against Chris Bosh (gulp).

Also, see if the Lakers are bothering to rotate on defense tonight, that's always key but doesn't always happen.

On the second night of a back-to-back (the Lakers played in Detroit last night) it may be hard to summon the energy for good defense. But it is the only hope they have.

A big thanks to Kurt for the contribution and an interesting point about Toronto having issues with other team’s 4’s. It’s true that players like Jamison, Villanueva, and Josh Smith have played well against the Raps lately and a lot of that has had to do with Toronto’s rebounding woes. This is our first key tonight:

1) Grab a board. The Lakers may be minus one Andrew Bynum, but even so we’re talking about the second that grabs the second-most rebounds in the league, an average of 45 a game. Toronto grabs about five less on average, something that should be a major concern for Sam Mitchell and co. tonight. Players like Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf, Luke Walton, Kwame Brown and of course, Kobe Bryant can all clean the glass and Toronto really needs to put a body on someone tonight.

The Raptors need to keep guys like Turiaf off the glass tonight...

The Raptors need to keep guys like Turiaf off the glass tonight...

3) Bench play. Toronto got a great lift at last from their bench on Wednesday night and the Raptors need that to continue tonight. The Lakers are short-handed minus Bynum, Trevor Ariza and maybe Luke Walton, but still have players like Vladimir Radmanovic, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic who can fill it up off the pine. Therefore Juan Dixon needs to get his second-unit troops involved again as if guys like Kapono and Delfino are knocking them down, it’s going to be tough for LA to stop the bleeding with limited reserves.

Kobe Bryant is of course going to be a major factor tonight but I don’t have him as one of the three keys. Bryant certainly can takeover games, but as one of our readers pointed out last night, he can also be his team’s undoing if he forces the issue. His 39 points and 11 turnovers last night are a testament to this fact. Like Lebron James, you can only hope to control Kobe, not contain him completely.

My hope is that Kobe gets his, but doesn’t get his team-mates involved. Yes he can drop 50+ on any given night, but I’d rather see a 50 point, 2 assists, 3 rebound line than 30, 12 and 10.

Luckily, I think we’ll see "selfish Kobe" tonight…

…especially after dishing to Lamar Odom last night against Detroit on the game’s final play, only to have Odom air-ball the shot.

FRANCHISE

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