USA TODAY Sports
Things haven't exactly gone as expected for the Toronto Raptors this season. But that's a far cry from how off-course things have gone for their opponent this afternoon, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Yesterday I wrote at length about the necessity of having elite talent in the NBA.
My point was that in games like the Toronto Raptors' overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night, without elite talent, you end up relying on inconsistent offensive options, which while give great effort, don't always make that key play that gives you the W.
Philadelphia got those key plays down the stretch from Jrue Holiday, and in the end, that was enough to grab the overtime victory.
That being said, having elite talent doesn't guarantee success, and for Exhibit A of this theorem, all one has to do is look at this afternoon's Raptors' opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Coming into this season, the Lakers were a consensus Western Conference Finals team, with many an expert picking them not only to be locks for the NBA Finals, but to win it all. The club already had one of the league's best trios in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, and then went out and added defensive phenom Dwight Howard.
And if that wasn't enough, and yes, at the expense of our Dinos, picked up Steve Nash in the off-season to run the whole show.
It was as scary a starting five on paper as there was not only in the NBA, but potentially in NBA history. When the quintet was finalized I kept thinking of the options; guard Kobe and you risk giving one of the greatest shooters of all time, Steve Nash, room to fire away. Stick to Nash and you risk giving Kobe room to operate.
And of course down low you suddenly have one of the biggest and most intimidating frontcourts with Howard and Gasol.
Yes, in terms of elite talent, the Lakers were to the Raptors as Barbarian's Steak House is to Casey's.
However a funny thing happened.
The club stumbled through the early part of the season, fired head coach Mike Brown, grabbed Mike D'Antoni, and gave that a go. Unfortunately even with a new coach, the results have been eerily similar.
The club is one of the worst defensive outfits in the league, has no bench depth to speak of, and have only three more wins than, yes, the Raptors.
Now the club is in danger of missing the Western Conference playoffs and to hopefully add another nail to that coffin, we present our three keys for a Toronto win later today:
1) Defense. Interestingly, when you scroll through these teams' respective stats, they are fairly evenly matched. The Lakers are a slightly better team in terms of offensive efficiency (fourth-highest scoring club in the league) and neither team is exactly a defensive juggernaut. You can easily see these clubs running up the score so I get the feeling that whichever team does the better job on D this afternoon gets the W.
2) Control the pace. The Lakers play are playing at a blistering pace this season, averaging 97.4 possessions per game, second only to the Houston Rockets. Considering who their coach is, this may come as no surprise.
However the Lakers aren't so great at taking care of the ball playing at that tempo, and this represents a very exploitable opportunity for Toronto, the club that does the second-best job in the league of hanging onto the ballon.
This afternoon I'll be looking to see the Raps keep up with the Lakers break-neck speed, but taking the ball right back the other way to capitalize on turnovers. Toronto excels in the open court and considering the age of the Lakers and Kobe's recent comments to that effect, the Raps younger legs need to get out and go.
Of course conversely, this means Toronto indeed has to limit its own turnovers. The last thing the club needs to see is another repeat of January 22, 2006.
3) Kobe vs DeRozan. Speaking of which, a lot of this game in my eyes comes down to how Kobe plays. Dwight will be a tough match-up as always, but I feel that he'll have his hands full with Ed Davis and Amir Johnson. Steve Nash hasn't had his usual impact, and who knows how much Pau Gasol, a net minus on the season, will even play.
So that leaves Kobe.
As we've seen in the past, if Kobe gets going it can open things up for his teammates and opposing teams can quickly find themselves in trouble. However if he's left to his own "fire-away vices," as he was during LA's last game vs the Miami Heat (Kobe was 8 of 25), then it's easier to take this LA team down. It's essential for Toronto to ensure he works at both ends of the court and this means we need to see a lot better performance from the player Bryant will likely be checking, DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan has stepped up playing against his idol in the past, and he'll certainly need to do that again tomorrow.
As I noted in yesterday's recap, it's great to have bench strength (a fourth key as an aside, unless you think Chris Duhon, Darius Morris and Robert Sacre are striking fear in Dwane Casey and co), but Toronto's starters need to step up and set the tone if this team wants to try and grab a much-needed win.