For the first time in many years, the Los Angeles Lakers were in Toronto with little buzz.
No visitor in two decades-plus of Toronto Raptors basketball ever received the adulation and filled the seats the way Kobe Bryant did. And few franchise beat up on the Raptors so often (a 28-11 record heading in).
But Bryant, the future Hall-of-Famer, is retired and the young Lakers now take baby steps in this, the early stages of a rare Los Angeles rebuild.
There was more crawling than walking for these Lakers on Friday night as the surging Raptors — now one of the NBA’s elite squads — won for the fifth straight game 113-80.
It was merely the latest offensive explosion for what has been the most efficient offensive squad in franchise history.
The team hit double figures in three-point makes for a fifth consecutive game, held the Lakers to 23 per cent shooting from beyond the arc and dismal 34 per cent shooting overall and importantly, gave the starters at least half of the fourth quarter off ahead of Saturday’s visit by Atlanta.
Kyle Lowry hit 6-of-9 three-pointers continuing an unbelievable surge (20-for-28 over his past four games) and is now shooting .413 from beyond the arc for the season, nearly identical to two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry’s .414.
“Earlier in the year everyone was panicking when he wasn’t making shots, but he’s a shooter and it’s always going to come back,” head coach Dwane Casey said of Lowry.
The last time the Lakers played in Toronto without Kobe on the roster (regardless of whether he was injured or not) was way back in the inaugural Raptors season. Oddly enough, that game was Magic Johnson’s only appearance versus the Raptors. He scored 19 points and added six assists in the win, one of 32 games he played during his comeback 1995-96 season before retiring.
These Lakers don’t have a Magic or a Kobe — who does? But they do have an intriguing young core led by the past two No. 2 selections (D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram), 2014 No. 7 pick Julius Randle and reserves Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
This overachieving group (with victories over Chicago, Oklahoma City and even the Warriors) might be too good to keep its selection this summer (if it’s not top three it goes to Phoenix as part of the disastrous Steve Nash sign-and-trade), but they aren’t yet ready to compete with the Raptors, especially minus the intriguing Russell, who couldn’t play and was replaced by long-time Raptor Jose Calderon, who has lost a step. Ingram led the Lakers with 17
The Raptors decided to rest DeMarre Carroll for Saturday’s game against Carroll’s former club, Atlanta, and started second-year swingman Norman Powell.
With Toronto cruising along at 13-6 and with a mostly healthy roster, Powell, despite his obvious talents at both ends of the floor, has had to bide his time. He had made 14 appearances heading in, including three starts that saw him average 14 points on 50 per cent three-point shooting.
Before the game, Casey lauded Powell.
“He’s a young guy in this league, second year, I think last year he came in and surprised a lot of people,” Casey said. “He’s still learning. He makes mistakes, but he makes hard mistakes. He’s been a pro and it’s hard for a young guy coming into this league to understand that role. You are trying to scratch and make it just like anybody else, but he’s been patient . . . I think sooner or later he’ll get tired of playing behind those guys (and will) take those minutes.”
But that’s the rub. DeRozan is going to play heavy minutes and came into Friday third in the NBA in scoring and Terrence Ross has had an exceptional start off of the bench. With Carroll playing well too when in the lineup, that doesn’t leave much time for Powell.
“He’s grown, no question, he’s gotten better but so has Terrence Ross, so has DeMar. That is kind of the cross he is bearing right now. But I love his approach and just told him to understand good things are going to happen for him,” Casey said.
Powell said he prepares every day the same way — as if he will start and play 25 minutes — and is staying confident and upbeat.
“Last year wasn’t the first time (at UCLA, the team had more hyped players than Powell). This year isn’t the first time. It’s tough, but I’m looking at the bigger picture,” he said.
“Everyone is playing well, everyone is playing together. It’s tough, but, when I get my minutes, no matter how many minutes it is, go in there and show I can play, that I can make an impact and they can call my name.”
Powell played decently, with 16 points, overcoming a tough shooting start.
That was the case with DeRozan as well (6-for-18), but DeRozan still passed Vince Carter for second place on Toronto’s all-time made field goals list, behind only Chris Bosh.
Powell later joked that Lowry has been surging since the two of them started having a pre-game shooting competition. Told that, DeRozan had a smile of his own and said: “Don’t let Norm take any credit. Not yet.”
Not yet, that seems to be the general theme where Powell is concerned.
But his time is coming.