The Toronto Raptors (14-26) hope to bounce back from Friday’s heartbreaking loss against another struggling team, the Los Angeles Lakers (17-22).
This will be Steve Nash’s first and only visit to Toronto this year. Kid Canada is a favourite in Toronto and fans might recall Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo aggressively targeting Nash this past summer. Unfortunately things didn’t work out for the Raptors but they did acquire Kyle Lowry in his stead. Raptors fans are also familiar with Dwight Howard from his time with the Orlando Magic. Except the perennial all-star to come out swinging strong (literally). This will be Pau Gasol’s second game since coming back from injury. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has reverted Gasol to a bench role which the Spaniard has stated he’s not too happy with. His chemistry with Howard has been on-and-off so far.
The Cage’s 5 Keys to the Game:
1. Kobe Bryant
Although he 34 years-old (35 later this year), we all know what the Black Mamba is capable of. Time and time again he has torched the Raptors (the 81-point game is still ripe in my memory). Bryant is averaging a torrid 29.7 PPG, good enough to lead the league. The key to stopping (read: slowing down) Bryant is doubling early and forcing long-contested shots. Bryant has always had an issue with shot selection.
2. Defense against the rest of the Lakers players
One strategy for stopping any team with Bryant is to let him score his 30 points but make it difficult for everyone else to score. Outside of Bryant, Howard, and Nash (Gasol to some extent), the Lakers struggle to score. Force their role players to take contested shots and make it difficult for Howard to get into rhythm (Hack-a-Howard anyone?).
3. Slow the game pace down
With Nash at the helm and D’Antoni running the show, the Lakers are one of the highest scoring teams in the league and the second highest pace at 97 possessions per game. They are going to run and run fast. Luckily the Raptors are also great at the running game as well thanks to Casey-ball, Lowry and bigmen that can really run the floor. It will be interesting to see if Dwane Casey slows the game down or tries to match the Lakers’ pace.
4. Raptors big men
Amir Johnson and Ed Davis has been stellar in the last two weeks. Their rebounding, hustle and scoring punch have been what the Raptors need from the front court positions. They’re going to have a real test against Howard today as slowing him down will be key. Look for Casey to use Aaron Gray early as he is a bigger body compared to Johnson and Davis.
5. Closing out games
As seen in Friday’s loss, closing out games is still an issue for the Raptors. With no go-to star player, the Raptors will need contributions from all of its players in order to close-out the close games.
Today’s X-Factor for the Raptors will be DeMar DeRozan. It is no secret that he has been struggling since the new year started. In the last two weeks, DeRozan is averaging 13.9 PPG (on 38 FG%). The minutes are there so what is the problem? Maybe it’s just a mental issue but one thing is for sure; the Raptors need DeRozan to get is going if they hope to stand a chance.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson