The Los Angeles Lakers dodged a bullet on Friday with Nick Young suspended, as many believed his absence would force the offense to struggle against the Boston Celtics.
Upon his return Sunday in Toronto, Young gave his Lakers more than enough in the second half to steal a 112-106 victory over the Raptors.
Throughout this season, teams have frequently lit up Los Angeles in the first half and Toronto appeared to be on that course, scoring 36 in the first quarter. The Raptors came right out of the gates hot, nailing five of their first six 3-pointers. Much like the Steve Nash situation in Los Angeles right now, not everything great lasts. Dwane Casey’s group cooled off considerably from deep, finishing the game 9-of-30 from beyond the arc (30 percent).
Although most of the paramount action occurred in the second half, a couple of notes worth taking away from this matchup were highlighted in the first two quarters.
Pau Gasol, who has scored at least 20 points in seven of the first nine games this month, delivered for the Lakers on multiple offensive possessions. The key to most of his 22 points on 8-of-20 shooting was his ability to develop deep position and finish at the rim. Most of the night, he was defended by Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Chuck Hayes. What we learned, however, was that Valanciunas still cannot handle the more talented offensive big guys in today’s game.
On multiple occasions, Valanciunas didn’t have the ability to stop Gasol from getting off the look he wanted and couldn’t contain the Spaniard’s hook shot from the low post. One knock against Gasol, however, was that he still struggles to perform against large, thicker bodies defending him, such as Hayes, who is only 6’6″ but has a build that’s tough to move. More often than not, Gasol began his back to the basket offense too far away from the rim and was forced to shoot over (and even through) Hayes from a longer distance than he would have liked. Altogether, Gasol grabbed a game-high nine rebounds, but the Lakers were vastly out-hustled on the glass by 16 boards (47-31).
After the Raptors went cold in the third quarter, many factors led Los Angeles to take a 82-81 lead heading into the fourth. Experiencing a 19-point deficit early on, m0st fans probably figured the bleeding would just continue.
The entire fourth quarter would be about Nick Young and … wait for it … rookie Ryan Kelly, who started his first game as a Laker on Sunday. Young, who has had a special gift for drawing fouls on his outside looks, used his free opportunities in the quarter to keep the Lakers beside Toronto the whole way, before eventually striking and taking the lead in the final five minutes. He sure mirrored the guy he respects, Kobe Bryant, on a few occasions, hitting an insanely tough fadeaway falling out of bounds.
Young topped that off with 1:21 remaining in the game, with his favorite type of play; sizing up Terrence Ross with an in-and-out between the legs dribble before pulling up from 3-point range. Bang. Lakers led by five, 108-103, and never looked nervous from that point forward.
Back to his tendency to draw fouls, Young put the final nail in the coffin when he was forced to pull up a desperation attempt just inside the 3-point line, and drew a questionable foul call on Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan. Swaggy P connected on the two free throws after sharing a laugh with Gasol on how he continues to get bailed out.
Young finished the game with a season-high 29 points on just 7-of-13 shooting. From the charity stripe, however, he was 10-of-11. Los Angeles as a team shot a very impressive number from the free throw line that enabled them to steal another win. Making 26 of their 28 attempts, the free throw discrepancy was astounding. Toronto only got to the line 11 times and the huge difference was the sole reason the Raptors couldn’t hang on.
Rookie Ryan Kelly has been off the charts for Los Angeles in the past two games, scoring his highest totals of the year in two victories. On Sunday, he scored 17 points and was very efficient from the field, going 5-of-7 in addition to his 6-of-6 effort from the foul line. Kelly’s highlight play came with 2:32 remaining in the game, as the Lakers were still trying to find ways to stay ahead. With the shot clock winding down, Kelly used his killer pump fake to get Amir Johnson in the air, before putting the ball on the floor and freeing himself open for a smooth jump shot to extend the lead to four.
In the last two games, Kelly has averaged 18.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. But over anything else, he looks as confident with his decision making as anyone on this Lakers team. Could he possibly be the steal of the second round in the 2013 NBA Draft?
After the game, Coach Mike D’Antoni confirmed that Kelly has earned his starting spot for now, as he will start at power forward in Chicago on Monday:
“The guy (Kelly) knows how to play,” D’Antoni told the media. “There’s no substitute for smarts and he’s got smarts.”
Perhaps even more quote-worthy was Gasol’s approval of how well everyone on the roster is playing as team, despite the pile of injuries:
“It’s really gratifying to win back-to-back games on the road, especially with the way we’ve been struggling,” Gasol stated. “I’m just really proud of the guys. They’re stepping up, they’re bringing the effort, bringing the intensity, bringing the focus and not wanting to give up.”
On Friday morning, after coming up short in Phoenix, the Lakers held a team meeting to address a number of issues. Of course, Young’s plea of his teammates having his back was one, but the central issue was simply … team urgency. Ryan Kelly revealed the key points of the meeting, all components of the team’s lack of urgency during the poor start to January they suffered.
“That was carrying over into the game, a lack of urgency to get back on defense, a lack of urgency to rebound and things like that,” Kelly said. “When we saw that on tape, that’s the one thing it did for us is to make us realize that on every play, every possession, we have to have that sense of urgency.”
Not to rush the gun or anything, but when teams make a strong pact to improve their effort as a unit, we normally see them respond by playing with more emotion, and all being on the same page. Since the meeting on Friday, that is what we’ve witnessed. Los Angeles has won the last two games of this long Grammy Road Trip that is just beginning, but the effort they showed in Boston and Toronto could very easily translate into more victories.
Next up, the Chicago Bulls get their first look at these Swaggy-driven Lakers, in a meeting at the United Center on Monday. Chicago has won seven of their last nine games and still have the second-ranked defense in basketball. What could be a disadvantage for the Bulls in this one, however, is that Los Angeles doesn’t thrive on inside scoring this season. Joakim Noah‘s aggression will sure be a factor for the Lakers to overcome, but there’s only so much he can do if D’Antoni’s unit gets red hot from the perimeter again.
Grammy Road Trip: Three down, four to go (2-1)