LOS ANGELES — It was a battle of two ninth-place teams, each with designs on bigger things this year, each determined to use the final month of the season to prove to themselves and everyone else that they were right all along, that they are a good team, capable of big things.
If it means clawing their way out of the play-in tournament to do it? So be it.
Unfortunately, after a long road trip that featured a lot of good basketball, some excellent individual performances and some controversy, the hole the Toronto Raptors are in keeps getting deeper. Toronto fell 122-112 to the Los Angeles Lakers, who are proving that even with LeBron James injured they should be a team to be reckoned with. The Lakers weathered an impressive start from the Raptors and a superb third quarter as well as brilliant individual performances from O.G. Anunoby and Scottie Barnes and won going away regardless.
Toronto led five to start the fourth quarter and by as much as nine midway through the third, but the Lakers’ (mostly) bench unit went on a 15-6 run in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter to move in front and then extended that lead once the starters hit the floor.
It was newly acquired D’Angelo Russell — making his just first start after missing six games with a sprained ankle and just fifth as a Laker after coming over from the Minnesota Timberwolves — sparking Los Angeles as he drilled his fourth and final triple with 2:47 left in the game to put the Lakers up 12 and the game out of reach, capping off a 16-point fourth quarter and 28-point, nine assist night.
But it wasn’t the Lakers stars who were the Raptors’ biggest problem. James (foot) remains out for another couple of weeks and Toronto held Davis — who came into the game averaging 34 points over his last four starts — to just eight points, with Anunoby doing the heavy lifting in an impressive showing. Instead, it was Dennis Schröder, Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura with 23, 18 and 16 points off the bench, respectively, that Toronto couldn’t match as their bench unit scored 12 points in total – Gary Trent Jr. was scoreless (0-of-9) in 21 minutes, the first time with the Raptors he’s been shutout. In all, there was not enough to support big nights from Anunoby (31 points on 12-of-14 shooting) and Barnes (32 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists).
“I’m always disappointed that they can’t get any stops,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of his bench lineup. “We held them to 15 in the third and they get 15 in the first four minutes of the fourth. [It] was a tale of two lineups, really. Guys played really, really great basketball for lots of stretches, just didn’t get enough done.”
The Lakers shot 56.3 per cent form the floor and are just one game out of sixth place in the tightly packed west at 33-34, while the Raptors fell to 1-4 on their road trip and head home at 32-36 and 2.5 games behind seventh-place Atlanta after shooting 50 per cent from the floor against the Lakers.
For the third straight game — going back to their losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets — the Raptors were the better team in the first quarter. The urgency has been there, it just hasn’t translated into wins as Toronto has lost three straight and four out of five.
“Our mindset is always the same,” said Barnes. “We really want these games really bad. We have them most of the game, and we just can’t close it out. Our mindset is the same: keep trying to stay together, keep playing together, we’ve got to grind. Each and every time out we want to win these.”
They return home in eighth place, just as they were when they left on their road trip, but slipping to 10th place is a real possibility and the advantage over 11th-place Chicago is just one game. But the Raptors remain determined.
“We gotta win just to get in. We want to get in, we want to have a chance,” Nurse said. “Even though we’re down the standings a little bit, we don’t feel like there’s a huge gap between us and a lot of teams in this league. I don’t think we’re afraid of too many teams. The main thing for us is to continue to focus on getting better, playing better, getting some wins and get in the tournament and then we’ll see what happens.”
The Lakers are reading from the same playbook, but they have been able to put their hopes into action. They came into last night’s game 7-3 in their past 10 games and second in the NBA in defensive rating since the all-star break.
“We have to come out every day and be the best version of ourselves. There’s not a lot of games left, but enough for us to make up ground,” said Lakers head coach Darvin Ham.
And the defence? “It’s all of those guys just buying in. And the foundation we’ve preached since Day 1 is to stay competitive and that’s where it starts. Our system is detailed, but it’s simple in nature,” he said. “They don’t have to stand there and think about 13 different coverages for 13 different offensive scenarios to try guard. It allows them to be competitive and use their instincts.”
It took a minute to wake up, however, and the Raptors — ready to go from the jump — took full advantage. Toronto went up 25-10 midway through the first quarter after Anunoby hit the second of a pair of consecutive threes to give him 10 points before the game was six minutes old.
Three early Lakers turnovers helped the Raptors cause as well and Jakob Poeltl kept finding seams in the L.A. defence on his way to eight first-quarter points. But the Lakers’ trade deadline moves — in addition to bringing D’Angelo Russell to play point guard in place of the departed Russell Westbrook — were also about adding quality depth. It showed when Los Angeles went to their newly outfitted bench and went on a 21-10 run bolstered by Schröder — now coming off the bench behind Russell — Hachimura and Reaves, along with four Raptors turnovers.
Things only got worse in the second quarter, or at least the second half of the second quarter. After Pascal Siakam’s second three of the half put the Raptors up by six with 5:55 to play, the Lakers started to roll and the Raptors to wobble. Toronto gave up a 23-9 run with Russell taking over the game for a few crucial minutes, finding his way to the rim for a pair of lay-ups, hitting a step-back three over Fred VanVleet and assisting on three more scores. The Raptors’ paint was suddenly wide open with Toronto’s starters unable to handle a mixed compilation of Lakers starters and bench pieces. The flurry gave the Lakers a 70-62 lead on the strength of a 39-point second quarter in which they shot 67 per cent from the floor.
But the Raptors came back after the half with the same urgency they started the game with and again it was Anunoby doing a lot of the damage. In addition to more than holding his own on Davis, Anunoby was locked in offensively. He scored 14 points in the first half of the quarter as Toronto came out of the gate with a 22-5 run in which Anunoby’s contributions were the following: a three, a pair of free throws, a steal and an assist on a fastbreak, a steal and a fastbreak layup, another lay-up, a dunk on an alley-oop and a three-point play off a turnaround jumper. In all: 14 points, two steals and an assist in the first six minutes of the quarter, all before Davis had cracked double figures in points or rebounds.
At that point Anunoby was 11-of-12 from the floor for 29 points. Unfortunately, no one else was ready pick up where he left off. VanVleet’s three was the only Raptors field goal for the rest of the period as the Lakers were able to trim Toronto’s lead to five, 90-85, to start the fourth.
But the momentum didn’t last, and the game began getting away from Toronto in all the familiar ways.
“We’ve just got to do better talking defensively, guarding the ball, keeping the ball in front, having that intensity when we come into the game,” said Barnes, who was often anchoring the bench lineups. “I’ve got to be a better leader when I’m out there, for sure. We’ve just got to keep talking defensively and keep getting better.”
The Raptors now head home for some time after playing seven of their past eight games on the road, a stretch in which they went 3-5. They’ll need to put some wins together sooner than later, but that’s not a new story.