The Los Angeles Lakers looked just plain ugly when they faced the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre back on Jan. 20, and they'll look to have vengeance now that the scene has shifted to the Staples Center.
The Lakers are no longer playing like an unbalanced squad with no identity, as they did against Toronto earlier in the season. They now have a fighting chance at clinching the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Entering this game, they are 1.5 games behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 seed and have won three of four.
The Raptors are also No. 9 in their conference, though they are highly unlikely to make the postseason. They sit 7.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, so their approach this game is likely going to be playing spoiler to Los Angeles and all other playoff hungry teams.
With a rowdy Staples Center crowd cheering them on, the Lakers are going to be out for a big win, not to mention revenge for an earlier loss.
Time: Friday, March 8, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, TSN2
Records: Toronto Raptors (24-38) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (31-31)
Injuries: Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (foot, out), Mickael Pietrus (knee, out), Linas Kleiza (knee, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Los Angeles Seeks Vengeance for Ugly Performance in Toronto
As was previously mentioned, the Lakers visited the Raptors in January and looked just plain ugly. The team only lost 108-103, but how desperate and uninspired the team looked was obvious.
Kobe Bryant led with 26 points, but shot 10-of-32 from the field. That was more than twice as many attempts as any of his teammates.
It certainly didn't help Los Angeles that Dwight Howard was ejected from the game after receiving his second technical in the second quarter, and were it not for 25 points from Pau Gasol, Los Angeles likely would have been blown out.
Fortunately for them, the game was able to be kept close, and the Raptors won on the back of 22 points and nine assists from Jose Calderon.
But Toronto is a much different team now. Calderon was part of the trade that brought Rudy Gay aboard and now plays for the Detroit Pistons, so this revenge game is going to be tougher than Lakers fans may think.
Since Gay debuted for the Raptors on Feb. 1, Toronto has gone 8-8. That's not exactly a glamorous record, but still noteworthy in that the team finally has a veteran star that can be relied upon.
Thus, the Lakers are going to have to be in top form and sharing the ball with each other nonstop in order to ensure a victory over Toronto, lest they want to lose again and be swept in the season series.
Key Matchup: Metta World Peace vs. Rudy Gay
Now that the Raptors have a bona fide star in Gay, the team has been playing with an extra bounce in its step. This is slightly strange, especially since Gay has not exactly been having a good season.
The former UConn star is averaging 17.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, but is shooting just 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from long range. He has posted 19.8 points, 6.5 boards and 2.3 steals per contest since joining the Raptors, but has still just made 39 percent of his attempts from the field.
All percentage woes aside, however, Gay has still been a solid go-to guy for the Raptors and has been hot as of late. In his team's last five games, of which he has appeared in four, he is averaging 19 points and 5.8 rebounds to go with 1.5 steals per contest.
This means that the Lakers are going to need a strong defensive performance from Metta World Peace, and not one that results in him getting thrown out of the game.
The legendary pest has regained his offensive game in Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense and is averaging 12.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. He is also shooting 40 percent from the field and 36 percent from long range.
World Peace has been better over his last five games, posting 12.2 points and 1.6 steals while shooting 48 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown.
That is all well and good, but defense has to be the name of the game for World Peace against the Raptors. He has to stick to Gay like glue and ensure that the Raptors' star has an off-shooting night.
This can at least partially swing the pendulum in the Lakers' favor, and take the team a step closer towards a playoff spot.
Otherwise, the entire game becomes an uphill battle, one in which Los Angeles may not see the top.
X-Factor: Antawn Jamison
It could be argued that each and every Laker is an X-factor for this game, but one that stands out is Jamison. He has done a decent job as a bench scorer for Los Angeles this season, averaging nine points per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 34 percent from downtown.
The former Tar Heel has also been solid his last five games, posting 11 points and six boards over that stretch. Jamison has also shot 48 percent from the field and an incredible 44 percent from downtown.
Long story short, Jamison needs to be in top scoring form against Toronto. This means being aggressive on the attack and not being afraid to take the hard shots. Whether that means pulling up for a jumper or driving the lane to draw a foul, the 36-year-old cannot be afraid to do it.
The fact of the matter is that despite being on the older side by NBA standards, Jamison still has enough gas left in the tank that he can be a scoring force. This is the man that the Lakers need him to be against Toronto, or else a victory is going to be much tougher to come by.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Rudy Gay
PF: Andrea Bargnani
C: Jonas Valanciunas
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Metta World Peace
PF: Earl Clark
C: Dwight Howard
The Lakers lost to the Raptors in January, but will defeat them in March. The team's new attitude has shone bright ever since Kobe Bryant became a playmaker on top of a scorer, and this will help the Lakers get above .500 by the final buzzer.
Pick your winner!
Howard will have a double-double and be the dominant 5 that the Lakers need him to be regularly, and Metta World Peace's defense of Rudy Gay will be phenomenal. Of course, Kobe Bryant will have another excellent evening.
Off the bench, Antawn Jamison will sink some key shots and while he won't blow people away with his performance, he'll do just enough to make a difference.
On Toronto's end, Gay will be forced to get creative on offense, which won't produce good results. This will leave guys like DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani to carry Toronto, and that will only dig a bigger hole.
This is the Lakers' game to lose, and there's no way they will let that happen with a rowdy Staples Center crowd cheering them on.
Los Angeles Lakers 109, Toronto Raptors 98