Source: Kobe Bryant/Facebook
Kobe Bryant
Source: Kobe Bryant | Facebook

December 8, 2013 — 6:30 PM (PST)
STAPLES Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SportsNet / NBATV
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)

He’s back.

Lakers superstar G Kobe Bryant makes his season debut for the Los Angeles Lakers (10-9) against the Toronto Raptors (6-12) tonight in front of a home crowd. Bryant, who returns from a devasating left achilles tear from the April 12th game vs. Golden State Warriors, provides the Lakers with a game-changer and team leader on the floor. Despite playing without Bryant, the Lakers have surprised many NBA experts this season by playing very well as a team,  winning 6 out of their last 8 games to maintain a .500 winning percentage. According to Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, he expects to see Kobe play in the 20-25 minute range tonight.

The Lakers come off of a solid win versus the Sacramento Kings, where G Jodie Meeks and G/F Wesley Johnson led the way for the Lakers. Meeks scored 19 points by shooting 5-6 from the 3 pt line, including 2 huge 3-pointers to defeat the Kings, while Johnson locked down defensively by having 5 steals. Also, the emergence of C Robert Sacre has been a pleasant surprise for the Lakers. As a surprise starter vs. Kings last game, Sacre held his own against a very talented C DeMarcus Cousins, scoring 11 points, and getting key stops towards the end of the game.

The Raptors, on the other hand, just made news for themselves. According to Yahoo! Sports Marc Spears’ and Adrian Wojnarowski’s sources, the Raptors just traded SF Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray, and F Quincy Acy to the Sacramento Kings for F John Salmons, PG Greivis Vasquez, F Chuck Hayes, F Patrick Patterson, all who will obviously not be available for the Raptors tonight. Therefore, the Raptors will be led by G Demar Derozan. Derozan, a local product out of USC and Compton High School, has seemed to finally use his raw athleticism efficiently, leading the Raptors in scoring at a career high 21.3 PPG.

Projected Starters

PG – Kyle LowrySteve Blake [Advantage: Even]

SGDemar Derozan / Kobe Bryant [Advantage: Lakers]

SF – Terrence RossWesley Johnson [Advantage: Lakers]

PF – Jonas Valanciunus / Pau Gasol [Advantage: Lakers]

C – Amir Johnson / Robert Sacre [Advantage: Raptors]

X-Factors

Raptors: F Steve Novak - Arguably one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, Novak can cause the Lakers defense a lot of problems if he can get wide open shots. Novak, who is one of many players who thrived in Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system during his days with the New York Knicks, is currently shooting at 37.7% from the 3-pt line after the Raptors acquired him this offseason for F Andrea Bargnani. Novak is the only offensive spark the Raptors have from the bench, so if the Lakers can shut him down with athletic defenders like Johnson or F Shawne Williams, the Lakers bench should outscore the Raptors’s bench by a significant margin tonight.

Lakers: Rest of the Lakers - With Bryant returning to the lineup, the Lakers coaching staff has a major question mark moving forward: how will the rest of the Lakers play with Bryant back. In the past, the Lakers would tend to stand around on offense, waiting for Bryant to save them every time. Hopefully with the rest of the Lakers gaining their own confidence offensively in Bryant’s absence, they can continue to stay aggressive towards the basket and not be hesitant to shoot the ball. Notably, players like Meeks, Johnson, G Xavier Henry, and G/F Nick Young have thrived in Bryant’s absence for the first 19 games, playing very well on both ends of the floor. In order for the Lakers to not only win tonight’s game, but also make some noise in the playoffs, the rest of the Lakers have to continue to move around without the ball and not stand around hoping Bryant will bail them out every possession, especially towards the end of the game.

Bottom Line

Since the atmosphere at Staples tonight will be electric due to Bryant’s return, the Lakers will have to channel their emotions tonight to execute both offensively and defensively. Although the Raptors have a lot of talent in their starting lineup, they are very thin on the bench, something the Lakers bench can thrive off of, especially with Meeks joining the bench unit. Once again, the Lakers do not have a healthy point guard. Without PG Steve Nash and PG Jordan Farmar available for tonight’s game, look for Bryant to play point guard quite often whenever PG Steve Blake, who is currently battling a hyper extended right elbow, needs a rest tonight. If the Lakers continue to play as a team and stay focused especially defensively for the entire 48 minutes of the game, look for the Lakers to get a solid victory in Bryant’s debut.

Prediction

Lakers: 104-95