A quick start was followed by two relatively underwhelming quarters, but L.A. saved its best for last Friday night, taking control and sending a resilient Raptors team to its third loss in a row, this time falling 108-103.
For L.A., it was its sixth successive win as it eyes a three-peat. In their previous five wins, the Lakers’ margin of victory was 13 points, which tells you just how pesky Toronto proved to be on this night, outworking the Lakers but in a lost cause.
Toronto hadn’t beaten the Lakers at Staples Center since December of 2001, a stretch that now extends to nine games.
Though they trailed by as many as 13 points in the game’s early moments, the Raptors did take a three-point lead into intermission by being relentless on the glass.
Had Andrea Bargnani (14 points in 38 minutes) been more effective on offence, who knows what could have been.
Had the Raptors been more careful with the ball, they could have put even more of a scare into the defending champs.
Kobe Bryant, who was coming off his 17th career triple-double, was kept in check, finishing the night with 23 points.
The Raptors, without a superhero or arch-villain at their disposal, settled for the next-best thing. They inserted Leandro Barbosa, known as The Brazilian Blur, to start the second quarter. And the quick-footed guard from São Paulo was true to his nickname, reeling off 15 points in a dizzying 12 minutes that saw him score on everything from shoulder-dipping dives to the hoop to a trio of three-point bombs.
On a night when Jay Triano, the Raptors coach, had emphasized the importance of sharing the basketball in his pre-game media briefing, it was no coincidence that the Raptors’ fortunes improved when their passes began to click. After managing just four assists (against eight turnovers) in that lacklustre opening quarter, the Raptors, in winning the second quarter with a resounding 38-22, dished out 10 helpers (and just two turnovers).
“We can’t get selfish,” Triano said. “We can’t try to beat this team one on one, because it ends up being one on five. You’ve got to do it as a team.”
You could chart Toronto’s success, in this game, at least, by the assist-to-turnover ratio. Toronto lost its advantage in the third quarter, falling behind 82-78 heading into the final frame. And again, there it was: Five assists to go with five turnovers for the span. The fourth-quarter went worse. Three assists and six turnovers, a testament to the stagnancy of Toronto’s offence. When they desperately needed buckets to stay in the game, they generally couldn’t produce them. Without a waterbug point guard or a break-it-down slasher on the roster, such situations will pose a challenge all season.
For the Raptors, there were bright spots. Amir Johnson came off the bench to grab 15 rebounds to go with his 12 points. Jose Calderon had 14 points and 8 assists as the backup point guard (although his four turnovers co-led the club with Linas Kleiza). And Barbosa finished with 17 points.
“It was a challenge tonight,” said Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach. “I kind of valued the fact they gave us a game and came out competitive in the second period and took the lead. I thought it was good for our team to have to face a little adversity.”
A couple of bad ones by Leandro down the stretch kind of caught they eye, didn’t they?
First he gets iso’d on Odom on a switch and badly misses a late-clock three pointer and then, again after getting Odom on a switch, he tries to drive about one-on-four and misses a shot in the lane.
It’s still quite a learning process down the stretch of close games for these guys, figuring out who can do what and who trusts each other and so far that process has been difficult to work out.
They had a shot against the Knicks, one against the Kings and a couple last night and they came up short every time. Tough breaks but you’d hope lessons learned.
“I think Bargnani’s going to be the guy,” the Lakers’ coach told reporters before the game. “He’s got a three-point shot, he’s a big rangy guy and he can post up too. He’s long enough to get some things done out there, and he’s obviously going to rebound.”
“Their young guys, DeRozan and Weems, are talented, but still learning a bit how to play.”
Tattooed on his right wrist is “Blessed One,” the nickname his grandmother gave him. On his left wrist is the name of his mother, Diane. And on top of his hand is “Loyalty,” the creed that guided him even as a teen, when smooth operators tried to lure him far from home with promises of championships or money.
Compton also cherishes its claim on the one who got away. Even in this gang-riddled pocket of south Los Angeles, where wearing red on the wrong block can get you killed, you’re as likely to find a red-and-black Raptors poster as you are a Lakers jersey. The framed posters that DeRozan gave to his old middle and high schools have been stolen from the walls.
This season, the struggling Raptors will be searching for a player to thrill their fan base the way all-star Chris Bosh did before he left for the Miami Heat. One of the leading candidates is DeRozan, the 6-foot-7 starting shooting guard with the soaring dunks. If his potential is fulfilled, Canadians ought to know the person Compton residents have watched over for 21 years. Might as well start with the hands.
"They’re a very unorthodox team," Bryant said. "You’ve got rebounders coming in from all over the place. You’ve got the floor spread, and very athletic guys that are crashing and jumping, so it’s just their style of play."
Leandro Barbosa scored 15 of his 17 points in the second quarter for the Raptors, who have lost nine straight road games against the Lakers. DeMar DeRozan scored 15 points and Bargnani added 14 – and if they hadn’t made 21 turnovers, the Raptors might have pulled the upset.
"From start to finish, there was great intensity, and our guys competed," Toronto coach Jay Triano said. "We’re a young team, and we’ve got to not turn the ball over."
The Lakers were good at the start, but much better at the finish.
They had to be, because in between they were pretty darned pedestrian during Friday night’s uneven performance against the opportunistic Toronto Raptors.
On another night, against another opponent, the Lakers’ on-again and off-again efficiency coupled with the Raptors’ aggression might have resulted in an upset.
But the Lakers aren’t the two-time defending NBA champions for no reason at all.
The Lakers know how to meet and overcome a challenge. They did it again while defeating the Raptors, 108-103, in front of a relieved sellout crowd of 18,997 at Staples Center. They won for the sixth consecutive time to start their three-peat pursuit.
Toronto refused to roll over and play dead for the Lakers.
Overmatched though they might have been on paper, the Raptors (1-4) led at halftime and stuck around like somebody’s annoying kid brother for far too long to suit the Lakers.
The Raptors went to the basket and scored on layups and dunks and they grabbed one rebound after another against what everyone seems to agree is a pretty good rebounding team. On this night, the Raptors outrebounded the Lakers 49-31.
Several statistical categories favoured the Raptors in the loss, but perhaps the most glaring was their reserves outscoring their Lakers’ counterparts 52-30. Three major keys in that boost from the bench came from Leandro Barbosa (team-high 17 points), Jose Calderon (14 points, eight rebounds) and Amir Johnson (12 points, 15 rebounds).
Despite some turnovers from the guards down the stretch, each of them had their best games of the season five games in. Hopefully, Friday’s narrow loss can serve as a turning point for all three.
The Lakers conceded 58 points in the paint, 24 fast-break points and were outrebounded 49-31, a stat line that Jackson said indicated pointed to the team’s "commitment to defense."
"That’s something we can’t continue to do," Brown said. "Sometimes we didn’t box out. But that’s unacceptable and inexcusable. We have to grab every ball we can."
The responsibility goes beyond Odom and Gasol needing to combining for more than 16 rebounds. All player accounts said the breakdowns started with miscommunication on pick-and-rolls, providing a trickle effect where the Lakers featured delayed reaction on help defense, resulting in putting themselves in a tough position to get the board.
Plenty of missed assignments go around, including Bryant allowing DeMar DeRozan to beat him a few times one-on-one, Ron Artest going for a steal at the expense of keeping the rotation in tact, Ratliff proving too slow to slide forward on Toronto’s drives to the basket and the Lakers’ frontline (Odom, Gasol, Ratliff, Caracter, Artest, Ratliff) failing to switch with the backcourt (Fisher, Blake, Brown, Bryant) on screen and rolls.
Seven rebounds is pedestrian by Gasol’s standards, even more so when you consider he didn’t even record a board until the third quarter was well underway. El Spaniard’s defense in the lane was often noticeably ineffective, hitting its lowest point when Reggie "28 percent from the field" Evans racked a bucket of startling ease against him. And on two occasions after getting blocked, he was extremely slow getting to the other end of the court.
A redemptive moment along these lines came when he snagged the offensive board and put back a miss from Kobe to push the Lakers’ lead to 99-94 with four minutes remaining. More sequences like this could have prevented the Raps from growing so close to begin with.
(For what it’s worth, Phil Jackson expressed little unhappiness after the game with Pau’s work on the glass. For starters, Toronto shot very well during the first half, which by definition doesn’t leave many rebounds to grab. Plus, the Raps’ style of play also kept Pau away from the basket at times.
"This team has a lot of outside, exterior screening going on, where you’re on the outside and a lot of times you’re on a rotation and may have taken him away from the hoop," explained PJ. "I can’t remember a lot of opportunities where he could have gotten a rebound, when I think about it. It just wasn’t coming his way.")
He was concerned his team would a produce a lackluster performance against the Raptors (1-4), and he had reason to worry early.
The one-day rest appeared to have rejuvenated the team at the start of the game. They ran out to a 13-point lead in the second quarter behind Steve Blake’s hot hand (14 points, four 3-pointers) and Gasol’s inside play. He finished with 30 points and six rebounds.
Then all that energy seemed to dissipate into thin air.
A Lakers double-digit lead disappeared, they committed five turnovers in the first half and trailed the Raptors by three at the intermission.
Leandro Barbosa (17 points) buried a 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds left to head into the locker room with a 58-55 lead.
The Raptors have been trying to fill the void left when Chris Bosh headed to Miami. Much of the scoring burden has been on center Andrea Bargnani, who entered the game averaging 24 points a game was held to 14.
About the Blazers: The Blazers endured perhaps their worst day of the season Thursday, the last time they played. They lost two players for the season — Fabricio Oberto retired and Elliot Williams elected to have season-ending knee surgery — and another player (Rudy Fernandez, back) for a game. Then they blew a 13-point second-half lead during an overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. … Tonight’s game is the first of a back-to-back, which will be the Blazers’ third back-to-back already this season.
Series history: The Blazers hold a 19-9 all-time advantage in the series, which includes a 10-4 edge in Portland. The Blazers have won four in a row and five of the last six meetings.
Injuries: Ed Davis (right knee) will not play for the Raptors. Greg Oden (left knee), Joel Przybilla (right knee) and Elliot Williams (right knee) are out, Rudy Fernandez (back) is questionable and Aldridge (left knee) is probable for the Blazers.
Amir Johnson terrorized the offensive boards hauling in 9 and he also added 1 steal and 1 block rounding out a terrific stat line off of the bench.
I know it will not happen but I am all for trying Andrea Bargnani off the bench and starting Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans together; the only problem with this front-court being that it limits our offensive firepower vis a vis a starting lineup with Bargnani in it.
I think Bargnani would be excellent in a 6th man capacity and sometimes feel that only his draft status as a number one overall pick stops the Raptors from experimenting with him in that role again.
Amir Johnson has more offensive upside than Reggie Evans and actually managed more minutes against the Lakers and if he can continue to produce at this high a level expect his ascension to the starting lineup to come before long.