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Preview: Raptors vs. Lakers

Led by Kobe Bryant on offense and Dwight Howard on defense, the Lakers (31-31) stormed back from a 25-point deficit to defeat the stunned Hornets, 108-102. A loss would have been devastating to their goal of reaching the playoffs, but the purple and gold dugged deep and got themselves within a game and a half of the spiraling Jazz for the 8th spot in the west.

Tonight, they'll have an opportunity to go above the .500 mark against a team that hasn't beaten them at Staples Center since 2001.

Coming into the game, the Toronto Raptors (24-38) have lost 3 of their last 5 road games and 9 of their last 31 outings away from Air Canada Centre. But their inability to win against the Lakers in Los Angeles eclipses whatever record they may have on the road. That is if the Lakers themselves don't let their success against this team dictate how they play tonight.

The Lakers may have displayed an unbelievable come-from-behind win against New Orleans, but they shouldn't have been in that position to begin with. That game pretty much told the story of the Lakers this season — good in one moment, terrible in another. Kobe talked about the team passing the test of gut check after that game, but that wasn't the only time this year they've done that.

With only 20 games left, including tonight, Laker fans better hope the Lakers will not be tested again to see how badly they want to be in the playoffs. At this point, that should no longer be in question. If not, it's fortunate for the team they have Kobe as their leader.

Since the All-Star break, Bryant has been a dominant force for the Lakers averaging 32.8 points, 6.3 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 54% from the field and 42.5% from distance. Better yet, he's found a way to balance his scoring and his assists while dunking over defenders on a bad elbow. His remarkable perseverance has been well-documented throughout his 17-year career. But this season, he seems to have been spitting more venom than usual in order to show his teammates what it takes to win against all odds.

Out of all his teammates, Howard is the guy who needed to get the message. For one night at least, he got it. Versus the Hornets, Howard took command of the defense by challenging nearly every shot taken in the paint, but his rejection on a 2-handed dunk attempt by Robin Lopez with only 28 seconds left in the game is the kind of plays the Lakers have envisioned out of him when they traded for him. Will the Lakers continue to see that effort tonight and beyond?

This is the final game of the season against the Raptors. The Lakers lost the previous game 108-103 in Toronto, so they're looking for some payback tonight. The purple and gold have won 4 of the last 5 against this team.

Matchup of the Game

Rudy Gay vs. Metta World Peace: The Raptors have traded away their Laker-killer in Jose Calderon for a much-needed scoring wingman that can defend as well. Gay leads the team in scoring and in steals averaging 19.8 points and 2.3 steals. His length and athleticism over MWP could mean the difference for the Raptors if Metta allows it.

Keys to the Game

> Dominate: The only way to show that they learned anything against the Hornets is to dominate this game on both ends of the floor from tip-off. The Raptors have a few young, quick, athletic guys who can get it done on offense and defense, so this team shouldn't be taken as a joke despite their recent slump.

> Turnovers: Toronto rarely turns the ball over averaging a league 3rd-best 13.3 turnovers per game while forcing their opponents to 14.9 a game. That means that the Lakers better take care of the ball and prevent a lot of easy transition points.

> Bench: The 2nd unit for the Raptors is ranked 10th in scoring at 36.6 points per game. But that won't mean anything if the Lakers bench continue to play well and provide support.

Watch Out For

RAPTORS: Landry Fields: He was the guy for the Raptors last time with his 18 points and 10 rebounds. The Lakers just couldn't seem to stop him at all. Fields is coming off the bench now since they traded for Gay. That might render him less effective tonight, but we'll see.

LAKERS: Dwight Howard: Howard was ejected in the 2nd quarter after receiving his 2nd technical foul in Toronto. He'll probably remember that and come out with aggression from the get-go tonight.

Game Info

Tonight
vs. Toronto Raptors
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. (PST)
Staples Center
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW

Injury Notes

TORONTO: None.

LAKERS: Pau Gasol (foot) and Jordan Hill (hip) are out.

Preview: Raptors vs. Lakers

Mar. 09, 2010 - Los Angeles, United States - epa02072832 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (L) drives to set up the final shot as Toronto Raptors Antoine Wright (C) and Andrea Bargnani (R) defend as time runs out in Los Angeles, California, USA 09 March 2010. Bryant made the game-winning shot and the Lakers beat the Raptors 109-107.

It’s only been five games, but the Lakers (5-0) are playing like they’re already in mid-season form. Yes, they’ve only played one team from the playoffs last year, but the 2-time defending champs look like they’re ready for the playoffs now. They won’t face another playoff-bound team from last season until Sunday when they tangle with Portland. But first, they have to take care of the visiting Toronto Raptors (1-3) Friday night.

The Raptors were one of the two teams this past summer that were spurned by their own franchise superstar for some fun in the sun down in South Beach. With Chris Bosh now gone, the team fell into the hands of 3-point shooting 7-footer Andrea Bargnani and athletic wingman DeMar DeRozan. Bargnani is averaging 24 points per game while shooting 58% from 22 feet and beyond. DeRozan is boasting a 15.8 PPG and a 50% shooting average so far this year.

Last season, Toronto had one of the worst road record in the league at 15-26 because they were also the 3rd worst defensive team giving up 105.9 points per contest. So far, it looks like nothing is gonna change for them this season. They currently have the 21st best defense and posting a 0-2 record away from Air Canda Centre. They’re on their third stop of their 4-game road trip against the Lakers.

Meanwhile, the purple and gold are tops in the Pacific Division and in the West eventhough they share an unbeaten record with New Orleans. They also have the highest-scoring offense right now putting up 113.8 PPG, but are 17th on defense surrendering 100.8 PPG. The Lakers are also currently the second best rebounding team in the NBA behind Orlando. Against the Raptors, they’re going to need to man the boards when a certain someone comes on the floor. More on this a bit later.

The Lakers split the season series last year against Toronto, but they haven’t lost against them at Staples Center in 9 years.

Matchup of the Game

Pau Gasol vs. Andrea Bargnani: This is Gasol’s most intriguing matchup yet. Pau can cause double-teams out of the block, but Andrea can spread any defense with his shooting ability. Gasol has been the interior defense for the Lakers thus far, but he will need to defend Bargnani where the air is thin for bigs. It’s going to be a supreme post-player versus a superb outside shooter. Who’s gonna take that matchup? You’re gonna have to watch the game.

Keys for the Lakers

Offense

1. Pressure Toronto’s interior defense: Bargnani may have improved his career shot-blocking average from .8 to 1.8 right now, but he’s still not good enough to stop guys like Pau in the paint. Andrea is the leading scorer for the Raptors, so his minutes on the floor for them is vital. If the Lakers make him play a lot of defense against Gasol, he’ll likely get in foul trouble very early.
2. Kobe: #24 is kind of like a walking nightmare for Toronto having been the only team who allowed him to score 81 points on them in one game. Jarrett Jack is their designated Kobe defender, but don’t expect a 6-foot 3 guy to save the team from “The Black Mamba”.
3. Move the ball: The Lakers have been doing well in this department so far because they have so many guys who can score from anywhere on the court. But, they should really do this all the time against Toronto if the Lakers want to save extra energy for the Blazers on Sunday. Extra passes just makes scoring a little easier.

Defense

1. Rotation: The Raptors are a perimeter team and will always force the Laker bigs to move out of the paint. They can certainly shoot well enough to do it, too. So, it’s vital for the Lakers to be extra sharp on covering all shooters and on their help rotation or this game could get real interesting to the very end.
2. Man the boards: So who’s that guy for Toronto the Lakers need to pay a lot of attention to? It’s none other than Reggie Evans. He’s the league’s 3rd best rebounder averaging 13.8 rebounds (5.3 on offense) per game. But, Odom happens to be the 5th best rebounder in the NBA. He’s gonna have his hands full with Evans though because that guy is just a monster on the boards.
3. Force turnovers: Toronto is averaging 15.5 turnovers per game (16th), so they can easily be rattled if enough pressure is applied at their ballhandlers or whoever happens to end up with the ball. This would be something the Lakers shouldn’t forget because the Raptors are also capable of making their opponents cough up the ball.

Game Info

Staples Center: Tip-off is at 7:30 p.m. (PST). TV: FoxSport West (regional)  Radio: 710/1330 AM ESPN

Injury Update

Phil Jackson is hoping Andrew Bynum could start practicing with the team by the end of next week. Luke Walton won’t return until he’s gone through “hard practice”.

Here’s Phil on whether or not Odom will return to the bench when Bynum comes back:

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