Gameday: Raptors @ Lakers, Mar. 8

Kobe Bryant looks to lead his Lakers above .500 for the first time since November.

Kobe. Mamba. Vino. Whatever you want to call him, it’s on as Bean Bryant and the surging Lakers host the Toronto Raptors tonight at 10:30 on TSN2. The Lakers have won 14 of their past 20 games to retire the TBJ Lakers Swear Jar at 31-31. More importantly, they trail the Utah Jazz by just a game and a half for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.

I know the Lakers get a lot of hate, but I’d really like to see them make the playoffs. In terms of viewing and entertainment, the Lakers are a better option than the Jazz who, no offense, are fun but don’t provide nearly the match-up drama. The Rockets are two up on L.A. and I sincerely hope it’s not them who eventually fall out, because they’re just too damn fun to watch for them not to be in the playoffs. But Lakers-Spurs or Lakers-Thunder in round 1 in place of the Jazz? Sign me up.

And good news, Laker fans: the Raptors will probably help out the cause tonight! Finishing up their four-game road trip, the Raptors come in at 24-38 and having just snapped a five-game losing streak against the Suns. They’re not playing their best ball, to say the least, and I’m pretty confident the motivational gap between the teams will help boost Kobe & Co to their first above-.500 record since Nov. 20.

Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Lakers 107.9 (8th), Raptors 106.1 (11th)
D-Rating: Lakers 106.8 (21st), Raptors 107.5 (24th)
Pace: Lakers 94.8 (3rd), Raptors 90.2 (25th)
Strength: Lakers Getting to Stripe (2nd), Raptors Hacking (30th)
Weakness: Lakers Forcing Turnovers (29th), Raptors Ball Control (3rd)

Well, at least the strengths and weaknesses match up! The Raptors foul a lot and the Lakers shoot a tonne of free throws, meaning that weakness should be magnified tonight. Of course, thanks to Dwight the Lakers shoot just 69.2% from the line, second worst in the league. On the other side, the Raptors rarely turn the ball over (yes, even without Calderon this has remained somewhat of a strength – the team turnover rate was an elite 13.7% before the deal and has been a roughly average 15.3% since) and the Lakers don’t force turnovers. If the Raptors can bang on the boards effectively and try to play disciplined defense, they may be able to carve out a few extra possessions to keep things close.

Who Guards Kobe?
Well, Rudy Gay, of course. At least he should, given that he’s the team’s “stopper,” but the Lakers play a big line-up at times that may force DeRozan on him since otherwise Metta World Peace will be free to post DeRozan up a fair amount. Let’s look at the options, though, just for checking Kobe.

Gay: In two games against Gay this year, Kobe had a 52.1 TS%, well below his 57.7% season average. However, it’s likely that Tony Allen took most of the defensive assignments, given the fact that Allen couldn’t as capably slide to the three against the big Lakers line-up. Gay is a pretty decent isolation defender and will, at the very least, get the opportunity to guard Bryant when the Lakers run their small-ish line-up with Steve Nash and Jodie Meeks on the floor with Kobe.

DeRozan: DeRozan has also been a pretty decent isolation defender this year and he was part of the team of guys that held Kobe in check last time out. Since he’s less likely to be able to slide to the three given Metta’s size advantage, he’ll probably work on Kobe for some stretches. It’s a bit of a scary proposition given the general narrative about DeRozan’s defense, but the team did okay last time without Gay in the fold so…maybe? I’m stretching here.

Anderson: Anderson drew the assignment plenty when the team’s last matched up and he acquitted himself pretty well. The bigger issue with Anderson is not trying to go shot-for-shot on offense. He’s a perfectly capable defender and if he’s gotta get run over Terrence Ross, this is the right game to do it in, I guess.

Fields: Landry has proven himself a versatile defender this year and played Carmelo Anthony pretty well in their meetings. The question with Fields becomes whether he can offer anything at all on offense, as he’s averaging just five points in about 20 minutes since returning from injury. Fields played 38 minutes against the Lakers last time, and I’d bet he has coach Dwane Casey’s trust for the assignment.

Other Match-Ups
Kyle Lowry and Steve Nash – Lowry, get after it man. Nash has been especially poor on defense this year due to age and injury, and Dwight Howard isn’t quite the interior defender he came advertised as, perhaps also due to injury. Opponent point guards have a 15.4 PER against Nash, but perhaps more telling is that the Lakers are 2.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Nash plays. Lowry can get into his poor-man’s-Westbrook mode and give the Lakers fits. Lowry dropping 20-plus efficiently is about the only chance the Raptors have, with no advantages elsewhere.

Dwight Howard and Aaron Gray – The two best centers in the league go toe-to-toe. In seriousness, Gray will get some time on Dwight. He played 16 minutes in their previous meeting (which the Raptors won 108-103 by the way, thanks to Bryant shooting 10-of-32). Valanciunas wasn’t healthy for that one but I say throw the kid out there tonight and let him pick up the fouls learning to bang with the best of them. Even though the narrative is that Howard is having a down year, he’s still averaging 16-and-12 on 57% shooting, so he’s a good test for the young Lithuanian.

Alan Anderson and Kobe – Who can take more shots per minute? For the season, Anderson shoots every 2.4 minutes while Bryant shoots every 1.9 minutes. We know Anderson thinks he’s Kobe, and this is his chance to prove it.

Earl Clark and Amir Johnson – The two hustle heroes will get the chance to go head to head with Pau Gasol still out, racing to become so overrated their underrated and then overrated and then underrated again.

The Picks
Vegas: Lakers -7.5
Hollinger: Lakers -5.5
Blake: Lakers by 12. Sorry, I just don’t see it. The motivation the Lakers have right now and the fact that they’ve been playing very well, plus the fact that Kobe needs to “avenge” his performance last time out (and you just know the guy thinks like that), all adds up to make me negative about the Raptors prospects in this one. Kobe drops 35 and the Lakers cruise to victory. Sorry folks.