Things were far different the last time these two teams met back on November 4th. The Lakers were 4-5 through their first nine games of the season and were still figuring out how to play with each other. It was clear that LeBron James found it difficult to play with a young and an inexperienced core in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. That didn’t change overnight when the 8-1 Raptors came to town — even without Kawhi Leonard, who was out due to an injured ankle he suffered the game before. Because of that, it was expected for the game to be close. But that’s not how it went.
Instead, the Raptor took off running with a 31-point lead in just the first quarter alone. They’d finish the frame leading 42-17. Serge Ibaka was fire, Kyle Lowry was leading the team on both ends of the floor, Pascal Siakam was beginning his run for Most Improved Player of the Year award, basically everything was going right for the Raptors. Toronto ended up playing keep-away with the Lakers, winning the game 121-107.
Fast forward four months and we have two teams on the opposite sides of the spectrum. The Lakers are bottoming out of the playoff race, sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference with a record of 31-36 and seven games back from the eight-seed Los Angeles Clippers.
On the other hand, the Raptors sit comfortably in second place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 48-20. They’re coming off a three-game road trip where they went 2-1, with wins against the Pelicans and Heat, and an ugly 126-101 loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ll look to build some momentum heading into the final stretch of the season tonight against L.A.
Here are the game details for tonight’s game:
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 8 p.m. EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Los Angeles — Rajon Rondo, Reggie Bullock, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee
Toronto — Fred VanVleet (Out – Sore left thumb), Serge Ibaka (Out – Suspension)
Los Angeles — Josh Hart (Questionable – Right knee tendinitis), Lance Stephenson (Questionable – Toe), Tyson Chandler (Questionable – Neck soreness), Lonzo Ball (Out – Sprained left ankle), Brandon Ingram (Out – Shoulder injury)
All Eyes on LeBron
With the Lakers all but out of the playoffs, the organization decided to put minute restrictions on LeBron James with the chance of sitting the 34-year-old on the first or second game of a back-to-back. Now, with the Lakers playing the Raptors tonight (on national TV) and the Detroit Pistons tomorrow night (decidedly not on national TV), it’s expected LeBron will sit tomorrow.
With that in mind it’s fair to assume James is going to give it his all tonight. And out of any team in the league, the Raptors are well aware of what the King can do. He didn’t have a great game the last time out, recording 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting, but the Raps shouldn’t expect the same tonight. With Ball and Ingram shutdown for the season due to injury, the load will be on James to carry the Lakers to victory. Note: he’s coming off a 36-point explosion against the Chicago Baulls on Tuesday night.
Luckily for Toronto, they have great defensive players (unlike, say, the Bulls), so LeBron should expect a tougher challenge. Also, Leonard will be playing this time around, and if there was any indication that LeBron was having a tough offensive game against the Raps in their last meeting, things should get tougher with Leonard guarding him. Along with Leonard, expect Siakam, Danny Green and OG Anunoby to give LeBron some tough looks.
Get Gasol Going
Marc Gasol hasn’t had a stretch of statement games with the Raptors just yet. He’s a talented big who can play down low, stretch the floor, facilitate the offense and be the team’s defensive anchor on the floor. Yet we haven’t seen Gasol or the team fully use all of those skills in consecutive contests. He put in a solid performance against the Trail Blazers on March 1, recording 19 points on 9-for-13 shooting from the field to go along with eight rebounds, six assists, and a plus-minus of 23 in a two-point win. That’s the Gasol the Raptors traded for.
However, fans may get to see more of what Gasol has to offer against the thin frontcourt of the Lakers. With no real threats there, the Raptors have a golden opportunity to see what Gasol can do. Ironically, the three-game suspension to Ibaka should also help Gasol in a way to get more familiar with the team because he hasn’t played a whole lot, averaging only 22.8 minutes per game. Expect to see Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Siakam all getting involved with Gasol on both ends of the floor.
Revive the Bench
Toronto’s bench has been inconsistent all season long but as of late they haven’t performed up to par. Fans should know by now that this year’s bench isn’t as good as last year’s version due to role and personnel changes. However, there is still a chance to get them performing at reasonable levels. Tonight could be one of those games that gets them back on track.
Patrick McCaw has been the one bench player who hasn’t been struggling lately, as he has looked great in the short amount of time he’s played. His game against the Miami Heat, in which he started in place of Kawhi, showed us why the Raptors signed McCaw. He’s not going give them 10 to 20 points every night but what he will bring is a sound offensive game with great defensive skills.
Now, if only the rest of the bench players can match McCaw as of late, especially on the offensive end, the Raptors would really have something. Given the Lakers’ poor defense down the stretch (116.9 rating, second-worst in the league), keep an eye on Jeremy Lin, Norman Powell, and Anunoby tonight. The Lakers may give them a chance to go off.