“That’s why we got that guy, to guard that guy.”
Those were Nick Nurse’s words ahead of facing Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Oct. 24, but it’s easy to see why that line is relevant once again. The Toronto Raptors are in Hollywood, which now means they’re in the land of King James, the man who has haunted the north for the past three postseasons.
The L.A. Lakers are coming off an encouraging — if a bit nervy — 114-110 win in Portland in which three-point shooting (In this climate? Really? What a shocker) was the difference. James and co. shot 8-for-21 from downtown while the Trail Blazers only made six of their 35 attempts, including Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combining to shoot just 4-for-17 from beyond the arc.
There was some major drama out of Los Angeles this week, courtesy a meeting between President of Basktball Operations Magic Johnson and head coach Luke Walton. The former Laker great is reportedly unhappy with not seeing the type of offense he envisioned this season — as opposed to the slow start — and so this will be a crucial phase for Walton to show that he can make the necessary changes.
One aspect of their offense that has been impressive over the early part of the season has been their ability to take care of the ball while playing at such a frenetic pace. The Lakers rank third in pace but fifth in turnover percentage per Cleaning the Glass. Some of this is by necessity, as the lack of shooting across the roster means they don’t possess the requisite spacing in today’s NBA to consistently execute at a high level in the half court. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder have a fewer percentage of plays that come via that possession type.
How is old buddy, old pal LeBron doing in his first season as a Laker, you ask? He’s averaging a cool 27.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 1.9 steals and his team has won four of six after an 0-3 start. If there is one sore spot in James’ game right now, it’s his three-point shooting. He’s made just 26.5 percent of what would be a career-high 5.4 attempts per game thus far, and with the players around him unable to provide the spacing he grew accustomed to during his last stint with Cleveland and Miami before, he’s been forced to take more difficult shots.
Adding to the challenge, one hopes, will be Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard. The latest team update is that he is questionable to play after jamming his left foot when attacking the offensive glass late in the fourth quarter of the Raptors’ game against the Suns. According to Blake Murphy of The Athletic (but forever Raptors Republic in our hearts), Leonard is relishing the opportunity, if he’s able to play.
One can imagine the holdovers from last season will also be eager to show James that his LeBronto days are well and truly in the past. While it won’t quite ever feel as satisfying without doing it in the playoffs, it would still make for a bit of a statement if they can force James into a difficult night.
It seems probable that Leonard picks up the James matchup to start if he plays, but the responsibility may fall to Danny Green (who confirmed he’s feeling a lot better after being poked in the eye against Phoenix), Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby in his absence. Those three figure to spend time on him anyway as the best way to defend James still remains throwing as many different types of quality defenders at him as possible. The Raptors, ironically, now have that option with him out of the East.
Depth was a key factor when the Raptors defeated the Phoenix Suns 107-98 on Friday night, and that was a positive sign after some struggles thus far for the bench units. If Kawhi is unable to play, expect Kyle Lowry to lead from the front, as he has thus far.
Toronto practiced on Saturday and elected not to hold shootaround Sunday morning.
Time: 9:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. PT.
TV: Sportsnet ONE. Radio: TSN 1050.
The team confirmed Leonard’s status as questionable on Saturday evening so it remains to be seen if the former Finals MVP will go head-to-head against James.
Tim Bontemps of ESPN reported previously that Leonard will sit out at least one of the Lakers or Jazz games in keeping with the early season strategy of ensuring Leonard isn’t subjected to an unnecessary workload coming off a season in which he only played nine games. So, if Leonard does give it a go Sunday, expect him to be out Monday.
OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet both returned to action on Friday night against the Suns, leaving Kawhi as the only doubt against the Lakers. With JaVale McGee slotting in at center for the Lakers, I would expect Jonas Valanciunas to pick up the start once again.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: Danny Green, C.J. Miles, Malachi Richardson
SF: Norman Powell
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Greg Monroe
TBD: Kawhi Leonard
The Lakers are expected to add Tyson Chandler to the roster but he has yet to complete the waiver process after leaving the Phoenix Suns. Michael Beasley hasn’t been a part of the rotation since an Oct. 25 win over the Denver Nuggets.
Everything else is status quo from their game against the Blazers.
PG: Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo
SG: Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
SF: Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lance Stephenson
PF: LeBron James, Johnathan Williams, Michael Beasley
C: JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac
OUT: Moritz Wagner
The Raptors are 3.5-point favorites and possibly would have been higher if there wasn’t uncertainty regarding Leonard’s status. The over/under is at a whopping 233.5, but it will be quite impressive if the Lakers can play to that pace on the second night of a back-to-back.