This is probably the only time anyone outside of Toronto was looking forward to a Raptor game this season, but leave it to Kobe to keep this Raptor team in people’s minds; we can only hope this isn’t one of those record setting type days. While we would like to see Kobe in classic form, we don’t want to see him drop 82 for example.

Just to recap what a big deal his return is:

  • He’s 35
  • Has played 17 seasons
  • Fully ruptured his tendon in April 2012 (this means it was totally shredded, and looked like spaghetti on both ends of the tendon)
    • 85% of NBA players in the past were never able to return to the league
  • Was cleared to practice early November; 7 months after getting mangled
  • Playing before Christmas, ahead of everyone’s most optimistic estimates

I realize I’ve left out a ton of detail, but the last time I turned my ankle playing pickup with my buddies, I was out of commission for 6 weeks. I realize I’m not a elite athlete getting millions of dollars of treatments, but I remember a time I used to tighten my shoelaces and walk it off.

The Raptors are glad to start a new week, after the humiliating loss to the Warriors, and the loss to the Suns who haven’t read the memo they are supposed to be tanking (and are a half-game behind the Warriors for the 8th seed).

The Lakers sit two games behind the Clippers for the Pacific, beating the Kings and dropping a tightly played affair to the Blazers, and sit a game out of the playoffs heading into tonight’s game. Anything that Kobe can give this team, that doesn’t look like hero ball, will be huge:

“I don’t think it’s a magical number,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after practice Saturday when asked about a minute range for Bryant. “He’s totally well and ready to go. I think he’ll be limited by his wind and ability to be able to take the pounding. So, I would be surprised if more than in the twenties. It shouldn’t be any more than that.”

And unsurprisingly, no one knows what to expect from Kobe:

“I think there will be some ups and downs,” D’Antoni said. “Now, it’s Kobe Bryant, so I don’t know that. Anybody normal would have ups and downs. You might play well the first couple games then fall off a little bit or start off kind of slow and build your way up. So, it will be an adjustment period for him and also for us.”

Rey Moralde and Darius Soriano from Forum Blue and Gold (one of my favourite blogs; while I hate the Lakers, they are uber compelling) were good enough to give us some insight on this team:

Mike D’Antoni is coaching his ass off. He’s squeezed a dollar out of $0.15; somehow starting Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill (along with Gasol) and going .500 in the West. Go…!

Rey: Mike D’Antoni is a master of finding guys out of nowhere and making them into something (Jeremy Lin, Earl Clark, Chris Duhon, Boris Diaw, etc). The thing about D’Antoni is that, for the most part, he gives his players leeway and the freedom to shoot so long as there is good ball movement and spacing. I’m not sure if most other coaches can take this squad to a .500 record. D’Antoni knows full well what the strengths of his team are and, boy, does he accentuate them.

Darius: What D’Antoni does very well as a coach is promote a style of play that most players enjoy and then creating buy-in when the players have success doing it his way. Last year, of course, that success never really came and the buy-in didn’t occur until the threat of missing the playoffs was staring them in the face. But, this season, the guys are hanging in a tough conference and doing it without Kobe, creating more confidence in what they’re trying to do on both sides of the ball. So, yeah, give D’Atnoni credit for fostering an environment that these players can be successful in and harvesting some of the talent in these reclamation projects that other coaches were not able to do. However, the players also deserve a lot of credit. It is clear that many have worked on their games in the past year and have improved on skills that they needed to in order to become better players. Now that they’ve gotten an opportunity in a system that gives them some freedom and inspires confidence, they are running with it.

What exactly is spaghetti cake, and why is this need to know info for Nick Young who is playing well; I mean, I was expecting Gasol to have murderd him by now?

Rey: Spaghetti cake sounds disgusting. Nick Young’s play, however, is not and it’s a bit surprising. Does he take bad shots? Of course, but D’Antoni doesn’t seem to mind it. And it’s because of that confidence by D’Antoni that Shaggy P (hey, Jeff Van Gundy called him that and I will, too) has a renewed focus on defense. It feels like he would be rewarded if he plays hard on that end of the floor. And he’s definitely a better fit on the bench when he can chuck more shots than he can get away with as a starter.

Darius: Of all the guys signed during the off-season, Young was the one who concerned me the most. Not because he’s a bad guy or doesn’t have talent, but I knew his reputation as a ball-stopper and feared that his history of being a below average defender would outweigh his ability to create shots and be a solid scorer. I think what we are seeing, though, is a guy who loves playing in his home town and loves being a Laker. He’s bringing good energy to both sides of the ball and making more good plays than bad. He’s still Nick Young and will still hoist bad 20 fadeaway footers, but I can live with that on most nights if he’s also working hard on D and trying to get to the rim in transition.

The Kobe contract is a polarizing one. Bill & Jalen seem to think it is paving the way for Kobe to win his 6th championship in three years when Love and Westbrook come home. So a few questions: would Kobe have taken less? Why was he offered so much (Kobe says he signed what was offered)? Why was he offered so much while he was off with an achilles injury? How many more years does he have left?

Rey: Would Kobe have taken less? Maybe. But he made it clear that he wasn’t taking a paycut before (he ended up doing so but not as much as a Garnett/Duncan would). The Lakers organization wanted to reward Kobe for his loyalty so they gave him that amount, for better or worse. The franchise wanted to keep him happy instead of lowballing an offer and risk insulting him. How many years does he have left? Before the Achilles, I’d say he had a good three years left. But right now? I have to see him play first before I can come up with a reasonable conclusion.

Darius: Let’s work backwards here. I think Kobe can play 3-4 more years at a relatively high level should he remain injury free. He’s so skilled and works so hard, he could extend his career to 20 seasons and still be a very good player in this league all the way through the end (sort of like John Stockton). So, in terms of his contract, I think the Lakers offered him the money they did because 1). they think he can still play at a high level and 2). he is worth that much to their organization as the face of the franchise. As I wrote, this deal does make their lives harder in terms of building a winner under this new CBA, but I am sure they have seen enough of him in workouts and practice to think they can build a competitive team with him still being a centerpiece player while making a high salary. Whether that ends up being true remains to be seen.

What is this teams upside with a healthy Kobe/Gasol and a Steve Nash who can play 20+ minutes of product ball a night?

Rey: The West is tough. But I can see them winning 45-48 games tops. Will they? I think there’s a chance but I won’t be surprised if they finished below .500. I do expect the Nuggets and Mavs to drop off a bit while I expect the Warriors and the Wolves (to a lesser extent) to catch fire. I definitely expect the Suns to drop out altogether and I can’t forget the Grizzlies although losing Marc Gasol was huge. With that whole mess, that could squeeze the Lakers into the playoffs. This is the most confidence I’ve had on the team all season. Who thought they would go 10-9 without Kobe?

Darius: First of all, I’m not sure that scenario exists. Pau has already been banged up this year (he’s currently nursing a sprained ankle) and, considering what type of injuries he’s dealing with, I am to the point that I don’t expect much from Nash for the rest of this season. All that said, if all three were as you describe and considering what the rest of the roster has shown they are capable of, I think the Lakers can top out at between 48-50 wins on the year. Before the season I had their ceiling at 48 wins with the thought that they’d probably win between 42 and 46 games to compete for the 8th seed. I still think that’s about where they end up, but with the way they’ve fought and competed this season, it would not surprise me if they outperformed my original prediction.

A few thoughts:

  • The Lakers and Raptors are at opposite ends of the PACE spectrum, with the Lakers are 3rd (100.1) in the league and the Raptors are 23rd (95.7); that’s almost a full 5 more possessions
  • In 29 career games against the Raptors, Kobe is averaging 28.3 points per game (second-most against any team), with that game that should not be spoken of. The stage couldn’t be set better for his return
  • Other than Gasol and Blake, this Laker team is stacked with misfits, cast-offs and never made its, and have a 10-9 record in the West. This blows my mind, and validates D’Antoni’s coaching abilities.
  • Which brings me to my next thought: imagine if D’Antoni was coaching the Raptors? You’re telling me Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol are more talented than Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnosn and Jonas Valanciunas? That their bench is head and shoulders better than ours? So while some folks contend that coaching only does so much, I will direct their attention to the 2013/14 LA Lakers and smile

The line is Lakers -5.5 with an over/under of 204.5. The Raptors generally don’t fair as well when the pace and score climb, and with Kobe’s return, the emotional factor and fan support will be off the hook. I like the Lakers tonight, but with so many eyes watching this one, Casey will want to avoid a laugher, might start to listen to his assistants and call some plays and such…sub players in at the right times, call timely timeouts, you know, coach…

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