The team that is supposed to be the Los Angeles Lakers was no match for the team that’s supposed to be the Toronto Raptors in a game played in Tampa – the Raptors’ supposed home court – on Tuesday night.
The defending champion Lakers were without superstars Anthony Davis (calf) and LeBron James (ankle) as they try to keep from sliding to the bottom of the playoff picture in the highly competitive Western Conference.
The Raptors were without a third of their lineup, including Fred VanVleet (hip); Kyle Lowry (foot injection); Paul Watson (health and safety protocols); Patrick McCaw (knee) and Jalen Harris (hip pointer) and are trying to crawl their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture from 11th place.
And having OG Anunoby ejected didn’t help, either.
Let’s just say that on this night, the Lakers depth won out and Los Angeles won in what was largely a rout but ended up 110-101. The outcome was never in question, although – to their credit – the Raptors kept battling and cut the lead to nine with 12 seconds to play thanks to a gritty fourth quarter.
But overall, the shorthanded Raptors were short of bright spots. Rookie Malachi Flynn, coming off two outstanding games as he soaks up minutes with fellow point guards Lowry and VanVleet out, couldn’t make magic three times in a row, although he did finish with a respectable 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes. Pascal Siakam, playing well of late, was just 7-of-21 from the floor, though is season-high 13 free throws made helped him to a Raptors-leading 27.
The Lakers had seven players in double-figures and 49 bench points. The Raptors played most of the game with eight players, total.
Former Raptor Marc Gasol set the tone with a season-high 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists in his best game of the season in L.A.
The loss snapped the Raptors' two-game winning streak after Toronto had set a franchise record with a 53-point win over Golden State on Friday and their buzzer-beater over the Wizards on Monday.
Toronto falls to 20-31 on the season and 1-10 on the second night of a back-to-back and remains two games behind the 10th place Chicago Bulls – who they host on Thursday night – for the final spot for the play-in tournament.
This remains the Raptors beacon:
“Listen, I’m still hopeful,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after the game. “I think we’re gonna need some of our bodies back. We’re missing a good chunk of our lineup and scoring and experience but … we’ve got to go out there with what we have available and I’m pleased with the way these guys are playing and we’ll just keep fighting and pick any win off we can anyway we can and then see if we can just stay in contention.
“There’s 20-plus games to go, still a lot of basketball to be played.”
The Lakers’ goals are different: they’re just trying to keep afloat until James and Davis are back and healthy for the playoffs so they can get on with the business of defending their championship.
The win improved Los Angeles to 4-4 since James left the lineup and 11-12 since Davis was hurt. They remain in 5th place and could easily slide down to the play-in tournament (for teams finishing seventh-to-10th) depending on when James and Davis return.
“If they are able to comeback healthy, with this rest during the mid-season due to injury that could benefit us going into the playoffs as well,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “We just got to win some games along the way.”
The Raptors served one up. They trailed by double figures in the first quarter and were down by 34 in the second. They cut the Lakers’ lead to 19 with five minutes left in the third but their fourth-quarter rally was too little, too late.
“I think they jumped on us pretty quick,” said Chris Boucher, who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds. “They're a really good transition team, so off our miss they were just running it back. They shot the ball extremely well, too. That really put us in a hole. And then we started getting into their bodies a little bit more, and then that's how we made a comeback, but it was far too late to win the game.
The Raptors are optimistic they can build some momentum after starting April with a pair of wins following a 1-13 March.
But with 22 games left, it’s hard not to see how the Raptors might be better served by simply fading into the good night and taking their chances in the draft.
They don’t see it that way, but they play that way at times.
The first quarter had all kinds of action, most of it inexplicable – like former Raptor Gasol scoring nine points, grabbing six rebounds (including three on the offensive glass) and adding three assists as the Lakers sprinted out to a 40-28 lead.
What prompted Gasol’s explosion is hard to know.
Before the game, Nurse was saying all the right things about Gasol, who was pivotal in the Raptors title run in 2019.
But he was a shadow of that player a season ago and has been even less impactful this season after signing a two-year deal for $5 million to join the Lakers and LeBron James on an apparent ring hunt.
But Gasol turned back the clock for one night at least.
Was it because he was playing against his old team for the first time since Toronto refused to guarantee a second year on a new contract after the 36-year-old was coming off the worst season of his career and a compete no-show in the playoffs?
Or was it because the Lakers signed free-agent big man Andre Drummond – who missed the game with an injured toe -- after he was bought out from Cleveland and pledged to make him a starter, nudging Gasol aside?
Either way, Gasol was great against Toronto, starting the game off by ripping an offensive rebound out of the hands of Boucher, who he has 100 pounds on, and then hitting a three and later rolling through the lane -- the full package and one that he’s shown only occasionally since he helped lead Toronto to a title in 2018-19.
Those who’ve gone to battle with him believe that Gasol will make his presence felt on the Lakers as the NBA Finals round into view.
“If you know Marc, he is going to make the best out of the situation. I don’t know what they're doing over there with the Lakers or what they are going with, whatever, but Marc Gasol is a great player and I don’t think he’s somebody you can’t play,” said Boucher. “I think he’s going to bring you something, facilitating, he’s a big body inside. To me, I don’t think that should be the situation [where he’s fighting for playing time], but I don’t make the decision, right? I’m not on his team either, but I do think Marc Gasol still has it at his age and he can bring a lot to that team.”
But Gasol raising his game from the dead – he’s averaging 4.9 points a game on 41 per cent shooting for the year – wasn’t even the most unexpected thing that happened.
With 2:24 left in the quarter, Anunoby – all six-foot-seven, 230-plus pounds of him -- was getting set to finish a fastbreak with a dunk when six-foot-two Lakers point guard Dennis Schroder wrapped him up hard to prevent takeoff – nothing reckless, but a firm, professional foul.
Anunoby grabbed Schroder in an apparent attempt to keep his balance, but at the end casually wrapped his left arm around Schroder’s thigh, and then his right hand around his calf, stood up and gently body slammed the Lakers point guard.
A scrum ensued and Anunoby was ejected, along with Lakers forward Montrezl Harrell, who came to Schroder’s defense.
Lucky for Anunoby in the end. He didn’t have stick around.
The game continued to unravel in the second quarter as the Lakers ramped up their defensive intensity and continued to move the ball at a pace two steps ahead of the Raptors depleted defence. They outscored Toronto 28-14 as the Raptors short just 4-of-21 from the floor and 0-of-7 from three.
The Lakers used a 26-4 run to open up a 34-point lead and eventually take 68-42 lead into the locker room, where Anunoby was waiting for them, unable to help, fortunate not to have to watch.