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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

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Courtesy: Getty Images
Courtesy: Getty Images

Wow, what a week.

That’s really the only way to look back on what transpired for the Lakers this past week. The Lakers used a 4-1 record and some timely losses from all the teams in front of them (shout out to Milwaukee!) to place themselves squarely in the playoff picture.

This was definitely a week we may all be able to look at in the future and know that this was when the Lakers finally turned their season around for good.

As always, let’s take a look at some of the good, bad and downright ugly of the past week for the Lake Show.

Good – Vino.

This is starting to get ridiculous. Actually it is ridiculous, and is only becoming more and more unfathomable. Heading into last nights game against Orlando, all the Mamba was averaging was 33 points, 9 assists, and 6 boards per on 51% shooting for the week. That was good enough to be named Western Conference Player of the Week, again. We all know that the man is in his 17th NBA season, is 34-years-old, and is supposed to be getting worse and withering away, not getting better and better.

And just when you think you’ve seen it all, that he can’t possibly wow you again, he goes and does this to the Raptors. Seriously, watch all four minutes of that video and enjoy every second, especially that first three, HOW DID HE MAKE THAT SHOT!?!

Oh, that was during the second of consecutive 40+ point, 10+ assist games, becoming the oldest player in NBA history to do that twice, and he did it in back-to-back games. We all need to enjoy what Kobe Bean Bryant is doing right now. I’d call it incredible, but that might not even do him justice right now.

Bad – The First Quarter Against Toronto.

An issue that popped up in three of the five games for the Lakers this week was a total and complete collapse in at least one quarter per game. The first quarter of the Raptors was a great example of that. Toronto, who is a middle of the pack offense at best, averages a whopping 97.8 points per game. They scored more than a third of that in the opening twelve minutes against a prous, plodding Laker defense.

Granted, the Raptors do have newly-acquired Rudy Gay and the streaky DeMar DeRozan, but really 37 points? While the Lakers ultimately came back and won the game in overtime thanks to the Mamba, they spent the last three quarters and overtime catching up from a terrible defensive start against a team they really should have dominated.

Ugly – The Second Quarter Against New Orleans.

If you thought that first against the Raps was bad, take a look at what the Lakers did (or didn’t) do against the Hornets during the second quarter of last weeks game. The Lakers pretty much forgot how to play defense altogether. New Orleans jumped out to a great start, turning a 28-28 tie after one into a blowout at the half. The Hornets shot 13/22 from the field, including four long three’s, en route to a 39 point quarter.

It wasn’t only the Laker defense that was bad during that stretch. The second-unit couldn’t hit a shot to start the quarter, and that coupled with their inability to stop New Orleans from scoring resulted in the Lakers trailing by as many as 25 in the quarter and 19 at the half. Allowing 67 first-half points to a team that averages 94.4 a game is unreal. Well, at least they made up for it in the fourth quarter…

Good – A Furious Fourth-Quarter Rally.

As bad as the second quarter against New Orleans was for the Lakers, the fourth quarter was a total and complete opposite. The Lakers absolutely locked the Hornets down, limiting New Orleans to 4/23 shooting and a whopping 9 points. The soon-to-be Pelicans scored exactly 0 points in the final 6:47 of the game, allowing the Lakers to close it out with a 20-0 run and a huge rally in a 108-102 win.

Courtesy: Getty Images
Courtesy: Getty Images

While the Lakers as a unit played unbelievably in the fourth, there were three guys who really keyed the rally. Jodie Meeks hit four huge 3-pointers that were crucial to the Laker rally. And for the first time all season, we were able to see what the Lakers can do with Kobe controlling the offense and Dwight Howard dominating on defense. Kobe had 15 of his game-high 42 during that 20-0 Laker run, and assisted on many of Meeks big shots in the fourth as well. In fact, Kobe and Jodie (Jobe?) were the only Lakers to hit a field goal in the fourth.

Perhaps the best part of the whole fourth quarter was seeing what Dwight can do on defense when he is dedicated to shutting down the other team. He had a flashback to pre-surgery Dwight when he swatted Robin Lopez on a tying dunk-attempt in the final 30 seconds, and really dominated the quarter defensively. More on Dwight in a bit.

Ugly – Falling Flat in OKC.

First things first, the Lakers showed a lot of heart in this game after falling behind big. Kobe was hurt early but came back to try and push the Lakers to a huge road-win. Los Angeles put in the effort and even got within five points in the fourth quarter, but a Thunder 12-0 run to close out the game made sure that they never got any closer.

While it would have been great to see the Lakers win in OKC, the fact is that this game showed us all a few things. First, the Thunder are a much better team than the Lakers right now, no matter how well LA is playing. There is still a long way to go for the Purple and Gold if they want to truly compete with OKC this season.

Second, the Lakers are still nto a team that has shown they can win on the road against a top-tier opponent. With the way the season has gone, the Lakers are going to have to win at least one road game against a great opponent to win a playoff series, so this has to be a major concern.

Bad – Stopping Opposing PG’s.

Ahh, there’s that problem which never seems to go away for the Lake Show. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before; the Lakers are getting torched by opposing point guards. Yes? Of course you have because this has been an issue for the Lakers since, oh I don’t know, 1996? We knew bringing in Steve Nash would help on offense and hurt on defense, but look at the numbers of the starting point guards the Lakers faced last week:

Russel Westbrook: 37 points, 10 rebounds
Greivis Vasquez: 15 points, 12 assists
Kyle Lowry: 15 points, 10 assists
Nate Robinson: 19 points, 8 assists

Sure, Wesbtrook kills everyone, and yeah Vasquez has been doing great passing the ball this season, so those numbers aren’t too bad. Except Lowry has been so bad this year that the Raptors tried to trade him five months after acquiring him. Nate Robinson is a shoot-first, pass-never point guard who racked up eight assists on the Lakers while also being the only Bulls player to score consistently all game.

Those are all pretty bad, but my biggest concern are Westbrook’s numbers. While he is impossible for anyone to realyl stop, he has absolutely murdered the Lakers this season. That’s not a good sign, especially with all roads to the Finals leading through OKC. Raphael Westbrook isn’t a problem that will be going away any time soon.

Ugly- Jodie Meeks D.

Meeks was an integral part of the Laker come back in New Orleans, and he helps stretch the floor which in turn makes life easier for Kobe and Dwight down the stretch.

But have you seen Jodie play defense? Me neither. Unfortunately for Meeks, he’s the guy that teams pick on at crunch time. I mean his defense is so bad I considered making a Joie Meeks joke right here but thought better of it.

Friday night against the Raptors, Toronto kept going to Alan Anderson (I know, me neither.) down the stretch, who scored at will on Meeks. I get Mike D’Antoni wants offense in the game, but when he isn’t hitting 3′s he certainly isn’t contributing on defense. Kobe’s heroics are incredible to watch, but Meeks defense is part of the reason those crazy shots are even neccessary.

Good – Dwight’s Back.

See what I did there?

Heading into his return to Orlando, a lot of people wondered if Dwight would be able to handle the backlash he was about to face. Howard was introduced to a chorus of boo’s louder than anything he’d ever experienced, and we were all curious to see whether he would come out and dominate or fade into the background in the face of adversity. 39 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks later, we have an emphatic answer from Dwight and the hope that the problems that plagued the big man this season are all gone. Howard also tied his own NBA record with 39 free-throw attempts, and set the Lakers record by making 25 for the game, including eight straight to close it out.

Howard also was a force in the other four contests the Lakers had this past week. This was clear on the defensive end of the floor, where Howard is flat-out dominating the paint recently. Many Lakers have taken notice of his improved play, including coach Mike D’Antoni.

Dwight is just feeling better, you can see it all over the place. His back is better, he’s in rhythm, whatever it is, he’s a monster defensively.

Which sums up exactly what the Lakers expected from Howard when they acquired him last summer.

So is Dwight officially back? Well if his past two games are any type of evidence, it seems he is pretty darn close. On Sunday he was especially impressive against Chicago putting up 16 points, 21 boards and 4 blocks going against Joakim Noah. You might have heard some “experts” proclaiming Noah to be the best center in the league right now. Dwight sure looked like he’d heard the chatter, dominating Noah on both ends of the court to put that argument to rest.

After a good week for the Lakers, the team has two more tough road games and a home date remaining this week. They face a revenge-hungry Hawks squad in the second of a back-to-back, then head to Indy to take on the defensive-minded, dangerous Pacers. After the mini-trip, the Lakers return home to face a Kings squad that seems to always give them trouble. By Sunday night, this Laker squad has a chance to really launch themselves up the standings in the West.

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