Expectations are a funny thing. Last season, the Toronto Raptors (43-30) clinched the Atlantic division title in the season’s 79th game amidst plenty of celebration and excitement. This time around, they topped the woeful Los Angeles Lakers 94-83 to secure the division crown in just their 73rd game to what is a tentative mood around the club. The message is clear: the novelty of reaching the postseason is no longer good enough; it’s all about playoff success.
That’s why it’s hard to get too exciting about an 11-point win over the 19-win Lakers, who actually jumped out to a 24-17 lead after the first and led by as many as 10 points before the Raps got things together. The boys in purple chipped away across the second and third quarters, but then secured the win with an 18-6 run to open the fourth.
Friday’s game offered a chance for the Raps to build some defensive confidence, holding the Lakers to 34.5% (29-84) shooting and registering their lowest opponent scoring total since the Atlanta Hawks managed just 80 points against Toronto on Feb. 20th. On a roster comprised largely of fringe NBA’ers looking for earn jobs for next season, only the starting back court of Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson reached double digits in scoring.
On the home side, Jonas Valanciunas led the Raptors in scoring with 19 points on 8-12 shooting, while Lou Williams and James Johnson combined for 35 points off the bench. DeMar DeRozan had an off night offensively (six points on 1-10 shooting), but continued to do a pretty solid Kyle Lowry impression, filling the stat sheet by leading the team in rebounds (10) and assists (seven) for a squad that had 25 dimes as a team.
Look, I’m not typically eager to jump on coaching decisions made by Dwane Casey and his staff, seeing as how they’ve forgotten more about basketball than I will ever know. But it’s getting harder to understand the inconsistent treatment of Johnson, particularly given how consistent he’s been performance-wise. Johnson scored 17 points on 7-10 shooting on Friday, improving his offensive efficiency to 59.1% shooting on the season, a field goal percentage that would put him second in the league (behind DeAndre Jordan) if he were eligible (he’s about 60 shots shy of qualifying). Incidentally, if JJ were eligible for the field goal percentage title, he would join Amir Johnson and JV among the NBA’s top five.
In the NBA, you have to contend with the schedule in front of you. So while it’s hard to heap too much praise on a defensive effort when it comes against a D League-calber Lakers’ squad, the Raps deserve credit for executing on their defensive strategy nonetheless. Of the nine Lakers to see the floor on Friday, only former Raptor Ed Davis made 50% of his shots (eight points on 3-6 shooting). The high-volume shooters for L.A. were particularly bad, as Lin, Clarkson, Wes Johnson and Wayne Ellington combined to shoot 18-54 (33.3%). Meanwhile, the club shot just 23.5% (4-17) from three-point range.
Second chance opportunities
The Lakers, as they are currently comprised, aren’t likely to hurt you offensively with any explosive scoring performances. However, they, like any NBA club, can do damage if given an opportunity to attack the offensive glass. A lackadaisical Raptors’ effort in boxing out their visitors enabled L.A. to pull down 16 offensive rebounds, including eight in the first quarter alone, and earn an 18-8 edge in second chance points.
Friday marked the final night of the 20th anniversary promotions run by the franchise. With bobblehead honoree Damon Stoudamire unavailable on account of the Arizona Wildcats’ contnued run into the Elite Eight of March Madness (Stoudamire is an assistant coach), the club brought in original GM Isiah Thomas and a group of six original founders that included John Bitove Jr. and former Ontario Premier David Peterson for what was a pretty cool acknowledgment of those who brought the franchise here.
They aren’t the worst team in the league, but the Lakers may well be in the midst of the most unabashedly shameless tank job right now. For Los Angeles, the difference between a top five pick and a selection later in the lottery isn’t simply in the quality of player, but whether they get the pick at all. The Philadelphia 76ers own their 2015 first rounder, but it does come with top-five protections, meaning that the Lakers keep it as long as it falls within the top five. If that’s not motivation to tank (they currently have the fourth-worst win percentage in the league), then I don’t know what is.
The Raps’ last above-.500 opponent comes in the form of the Houston Rockets on Monday night (7:30pm, TSN2). The Rockets, who would do Toronto a favor if they could beat Washington on Sunday afternoon, have Dwight Howard back and are looking potent ahead of the postseason.
Prediction: Rockets 113, Raps 94 (record this season: 48-19)