Having just started a 5 game road trip the Raptors begin an LA back-to-back today with a game against the Lakers. Their first visit with Kawhi Leonard (recent Toronto Raptor and current defending NBA champion) awaits tomorrow, but first is a visit with another former Raptor and NBA champion in Danny Green.
Despite losing both Kawhi and Danny, two key starters from the championship team last spring (I feel personally obligated to refer to the Raptors as defending champions as often as possible) the Raptors are off to a more than respectable start to the season, currently sitting second in the East with a record of 6-2.
Unfortunately for Toronto the injury bug is already taking a serious tole. With the Raptors already missing Patrick McCaw following knee surgery, they now must move forward without Kyle Lowry (fractured left thumb) and Serge Ibaka (severely sprained right ankle).
Toronto was already not a particular deep team in regards to rotation/production, but losing two key contributors puts the in a dangerous spot against two very talented LA based teams.
The Lakers have now won 7 straight games after losing on opening night (to the Clippers) and sit atop the Western Conference. The duo of Anthony Davis and LeBron James has been as good as expected, while the supporting cast has exceeding what many thought was possible.
While I want to see a larger sample size based on history, Dwight Howard has seemingly returned to form from years past. He has provided strong post defence in helping the Lakers to the league’s best defensive rating at 96.5, while keeping his offensive game largely limited to put-backs, screening and rolling, and attacking from the dunker spot on the baseline. Dwight is only taking 3.8 shots per game but is maximizing his opportunities by shooting a Laker-best 76.7 percent. Inversely Dwight has been abysmal from the free throw line (only 1.1 attempts per game) where he has shot 33.3 percent on the season.
In what should be no surprise to any Raptor fan the Lakers are also getting excellent production from Danny Green, who is shooting a team best 43.9 percent from 3 on 5.1 attempts from deep.
With Lowry and Ibaka both being out the Raptors will need to reach deep into the bench to find new contributors. There is no word yet as to who replaces Lowry in the starting line-up, but Fred VanVleet remains with the starting unit and should add further play-making responsibilities.
The likelihood is that the final starter will be either Norman Powell who had a great game off the bench in New Orleans on Friday, or possible one of the rookies in Terence Davis or Matt Thomas.
Pascal Siakam’s role expanded after Lowry’s departure on Friday where he was tasked with being the primary ball-handler in several bench-heavy line-ups. We are also likely to see OG continue to get a few opportunities to work as a pick-and-roll ball handler, something that came with mixed success against the Pelicans.
The absence of Ibaka will mean further minutes for Chris Boucher, and also possibly Stanley Johnson and/or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Toronto needs bodies and it will be up to Nick Nurse to find something that works.
If you’re looking for positives in the midst of injuries the Raptors have been an elite team in several areas this year. Along with being the best transition offence in the NBA (in the 100th percentile for transition offence according to NBA.com), the Raptors are also second to only Brooklyn in three point percentage (40.4).
Their interior defence has also been exceptional despite being 17th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage. As John Schuhmann points out the Raptors have defended at the rim better than anyone:
Holy smokes. Toronto opponents have shot less than 50% in the restricted area: https://t.co/Qrze6ns9o2
League average is 62.0%.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) November 9, 2019
Toronto will need big performances from Siakam and OG in particular, along with help from some other likely and unlikely sources in order to be competitive against the Lakers. They still have some tools to compete, but it may take a near perfect game to steal one in LA.