After a heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat on January 17, the struggling Los Angeles Lakers could use a vacation. Of course, by vacation I mean a road game against another subpar squad in the Toronto Raptors.
These two face off in a rare Sunday afternoon game, and the Lakers will hope to get back on track against a Toronto team that has lost four consecutive games. However, don't be so quick to write off the Raptors just yet.
As bad as the Raptors have been as a whole this season, they have performed fairly well at home. Despite an overall record of 14-26, Toronto has gone 10-9 at the Air Canada Centre.
Contrastingly, the Lakers have gone 5-12 on the road this season. This game is the start of what will be a three-game road trip, so getting at least one win would be nice for this team that has struggled all season long.
Los Angeles should have this game in the bag, at least on paper. They are the far more experienced team, and despite the flaws of head coach Mike D'Antoni's system, have a more balanced attack. Against Toronto, they should be just fine.
Just the same, the Raptors have proven themselves capable of pulling off the upset this season. The game is the Lakers' game to lose, and they really cannot afford to be defeated by Toronto after underachieving so badly this season.
Time: Sunday, January 20, 1 p.m. EST
TV: Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, TSN2
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (17-22) vs. Toronto Raptors (14-26)
Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, January 19, 12:15 p.m. EST
Injuries: Steve Blake (abdomen, day-to-day), Jordan Hill (hip, out), Linas Kleiza (knee, day-to-day), Andrea Bargnani (elbow, out), Jonas Valanciunas (finger, out)
Key Storyline: Can Lakers Find Their Groove North of Border?
The Lakers have been in a funk all season, and while a win against Toronto would be nice, it would be little more than a victory over a bad team. Though D'Antoni's system calls for a balanced attack, with everyone doing their part and sharing the ball, the Lakers still overly rely on Kobe Bryant to carry the offense.
Instead of using him like LeBron James and asking him to be the savior in key situations or just the fourth quarter, Bryant's teammates ask him to carry them from start to finish, despite the presences of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. As a result, though, the Lakers rank fourth in points scored, their collective confidence is shot.
Even Bryant himself has noticed this, telling his teammates that he could use some help in the scoring department.
The team needs to use this game against Toronto to get that confidence back. The Raptors are a weak defensive team, ranking 28th in rebounding and 22nd in points allowed, so the Lakers are in a prime position to walk out of the Air Canada Center with a big win.
This means that even if the shots aren't falling early, the plan must not be to go directly to Bryant. Sticking to the initial strategy is key, as the field-goal attempts cannot avoid the hoop forever and will eventually result in points. By getting Bryant involved too early, Toronto will just swarm him on defense and force him to take bad shots, and that won't help if his teammates' confidence is already low.
The fact is that today's game is the perfect time for the Lakers to get their groove back. If they can win and employ the same approach in games against better teams, then their season may not be lost after all.
Key Matchup: Pau Gasol vs. Ed Davis
Normally, a phenomenal big man and strong presence in the low-post, Pau Gasol has been nothing but a disappointment for the Lakers this season. Not only has he missed 13 games due to injury, but the Spanish seven-footer is also averaging a career-worst 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
This can be attributed to D'Antoni using him more as a stretch 4 and not so much an inside presence, but the fact that Gasol has struggled so badly in the new system and been unable to adapt does not bode well for the team's future.
Hopefully, he'll get the opportunity to play at least some defense in Toronto. Raptors youngster Ed Davis has been handling the starting duties at power forward ever since Andrea Bargnani injured his elbow and has done an excellent job.
The third-year big man out of North Carolina has only posted 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds this season, and let's be honest, those numbers are kind of low for someone 6'10", 232 pounds.
That said, Davis' performance over his last five games has been impressive. He has averaged 14.6 points to go with 8.6 rebounds and is starting to look like the talented big man the Raptors saw when they drafted him 13th overall in 2010.
Gasol has the experience to shut Davis down, but Davis needs to take full advantage of the Lakers' weak defense. He must work the inside and fight past both Gasol and Dwight Howard, just refusing to be intimidated by either man.
On the Lakers' side, Gasol just has to play the game. Be it on the wing or in the low-post, he must put his struggles behind him and move forward. It's not the way he's used to playing the game, but it's all he can really do as the Lakers look to find their way again.
X-Factor: Jose Calderon
If Jose Calderon played in a larger market or on a better team, so many more people would know about him. He is one of the league's more dynamic point guards and has an excellent long-range game to go with his solid passing skills.
This season, in sharing the point-guard responsibilities with Kyle Lowry, Calderon has averaged 10.8 points and 7.6 assists while shooting a remarkable 43 percent from long range. He has a great knack for finding the open man, and his shooter's eye just seems to get better with every passing game.
Calderon's shooting over his last five games has been exceptionally notable. While posting 14.6 points and 5.8 assists, he has also made 56 percent of his field goals and a mind-blowing 57 percent of his threes.
He'll have a great opportunity to show both his passing and shooting today. Lakers point guard Steve Nash is a future Hall of Famer, but a shockingly weak defender. Both men are 6'3", but Calderon has a more athletic build at 211 pounds.
He must use that to take advantage of Nash's age and help the Raptors keep up with the Lakers' offense. As weak as Toronto is on defense, they rank 12th in points scored.
Calderon and his teammates must ensure that the offense is flowing, or the young Raptors will be sunk against visiting Los Angeles.
Whether or not the Lakers' offense gets its confidence back in Toronto remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. The team will beat the Raptors this afternoon. The Raptors are just too young and weak on defense to keep up with the likes of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash's experience in finding the open man will allow the Lakers to take control on offense.
Who will win?
Kobe Bryant will have another high-scoring performance, and Metta World Peace will have the hot-hand from long range. Even Nash should be able to contribute his fair share of points, while also racking up the assists in running the pick-and-roll with Howard.
Toronto can expect a solid defensive effort from Ed Davis and good scoring from Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan, but the rest of the team won't be so lucky. The Lakers will make mincemeat out of the young and inexperienced Raptors, and in doing so, will send a message.
They may be struggling this season, but they can still kick a team to the kerb if the right chips fall into place.
Los Angeles Lakers 112, Toronto Raptors 96