Between the impenetrable nature of the NBA bubble (so far) and the spectacular quality of the seeding games through two days, there’s probably nobody happier in the United States than Adam Silver. I mean, the bar can’t be too high these days, but it’s a sure thing right?
As I write this, the Mavericks and Rockets are in a high scoring shootout of stratospheric proportions. On opening night, both the Pelicans–Jazz and Lakers–Clippers games came right down to the wire. Though it hasn’t been basketball played at the highest level, there’s no doubting the entertainment value of what we’re witnessing.
Now, enter the defending champions. The Toronto Raptors will officially get their seeding schedule started in the primetime spotlight, taking on the aforementioned Lakers. Toronto’s old foe LeBron James has his team off to a 1-0 start in the bubble, as he locked down both the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the waning moments of Thursday’s game to secure victory.
At 50-14, the Lakers are no joke as title contenders, and could be someone that Toronto faces in a couple months when the games matter a little more. For now, the Raptors will have to navigate a Los Angeles team that looks a little different from their last matchup in November. New bodies are here in the form of J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters, who both played in the bubble opener. There’s also a familiar face in Danny Green, who of course won a title with the Raps last season.
It all makes for a scrumptious matchup, with an ESPN audience in tow and plenty to play for. For the first meaningful time in four months, what else can we say but… let’s watch.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 8:30 PM ET
Toronto — none
The Brow vs. The Bigs
Though it was LeBron earning the crunch time highlight, Anthony Davis was the driving force behind the Lakers’ victory over the Clippers. With 34 points, eight rebounds, and four assists — Davis once again showed his ability to perform offensively from all over the floor, and create both with LeBron on and off the floor.
His matchup against the bevy of Raptors bigs that can be thrown at him will be one to watch. In November, Pascal Siakam earned the primary assignment and Davis still got his numbers — shooting 10-for-20 and racking up 27 points, eight rebounds, four blocks, and three assists in 37 minutes. Toronto’s win, though, was helped out by Siakam pouring it in on the other end to balance the scales. Siakam’s 24 points and 11 rebounds came amidst his most confident stretch of play this season, and it would be great to see that resurface in a marquee matchup on Saturday.
After Siakam, there’s also an opportunity for Serge Ibaka or even a smaller player like OG Anunoby or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to take a crack at Davis, especially when LeBron James goes to the bench. These minutes will also be critical — more on that in a moment — as Davis, albeit successful in doing so on Thursday, has not typically been a strong player as the only Lakers superstar on the floor.
Winning the “No LeBron” Minutes
LeBron James is 35 years old and beyond his prime, but the numbers show that he continues to be a required force despite being on a team with other weapons to choose from. With a plus-minus of 7.9, James is currently having a top five impactful season in his career, and one he hasn’t needed since 2015-16 (when he notably drank a beer while beating the Raptors).
That means the Lakers are simply not as good when he goes to the bench. Although there are more scoring options here now with Waiters and J.R. Smith, the Raptors still need to take advantage of their depth and win bench minutes decisively.
With a solid eight man rotation that should stretch to include Terence Davis, Hollis-Jefferson, and possibly Chris Boucher — Toronto will need some instant offence in those tweener periods between quarters. It’s something the Clippers failed to do while losing on Thursday, and will be a big emphasis point for the Raptors on Saturday.
Off on the Right Foot
After a layoff of over 140 days and a suspended season that included injury after injury, seeing the Raptors at full health returning to form will feel like a blessing. Having a game where they can inspire some confidence would be great as well.
This is especially ratcheted up when you consider Toronto has the toughest seeding game schedule in the bubble — and while a Celtics loss to the Bucks on Friday puts them 3.5 games up for the second seed, a win against the Lakers would make that near insurmountable with seven games remaining.
All those stakes won’t stop us from enjoying the moment, though. Meaningful NBA basketball seemed like a pipe dream as soon as three weeks ago. Now, the scrimmages are over and the Raptors have never been more equipped in 2019-20 to defend their title. Let’s see how it plays out.