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Lakers - Raptors Preview: Remember when basketball was played at night?

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Professional sports falls under the umbrella of entertainment.  Live professional sports is popular enough to merit the best slots for entertainment, i.e. prime-time.  During the week, these times are from 7 to 11 pm; on the weekends, just after lunch.  I'm reminding you of this because, as part of a lengthy 6 game Eastern Conference road trip, it's been a long long time since the Lakers have played during what we would consider our prime-time wheelhouse.  Somehow, basketball just isn't the same when it's running against syndicated episodes of Family Guy and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Soon, my friends, basketball will once again be played at times which are both comfortable and familiar, but before we can get back to good, we'll have to forego a crazy Saturday night and set those weekend alarm clocks one more time, because for the second straight week, the Los Angeles Lakers are kicking things off before it's socially acceptable to imbibe any alcohol more manly than a mimosa.

I have no idea when the New Jersey Nets started playing games early on Sundays, but today's opponent, the Toronto Raptors, have been doing it for years.  It's a cheap trick used to gain an advantage against West Coast teams who have to adjust to playing a full 12 hours earlier than they are used to.  Well, HA HA the joke's on you, Toronto, because the Lakers are as adjusted as humanly possible to this slight of scheduling.

I know this is going to come as a shock to you as the Lakers continue running into Eastern Conference foes, but the Toronto Raptors aren't a very good team.  Actually, if you are shocked, you should perhaps pay more attention to basketball (or less), because the EC has been coughing up fodder for the Western Conference for a great many years now.  If anything, the gap has actually narrowed this season, because while the customary two bad Eastern Conference teams are in the early playoff hunt, the last Western Conference team has an average .500 record.  Over the past few years, it's been common place for a WC team 10 games or more over .500 to be left out of the playoffs while an EC team or two that couldn't even win as many games as it lost enjoyed four games in the role of lamb led to the slaughter of which ever EC goliath had the top overall seed.  Parity, it seems, doesn't mind letting us wait.

As they've been doing for years, the Raptors have a decent offense and a terrible defense.  Last season, they were much more impressively extreme, with a top 5 offense, and the league's worst defense by a wide margin (over 2 points per 100 possessions worse than 29th ranked Golden State).  Both situations have regressed to the mean, with the offense barely above league average, and the defense improving to 25th overall.  Either way, under normal circumstances, it wouldn't be too difficult to score on these guys.  Trouble is, with another eaaaarly start time, these are not normal circumstances.  You might remember last week's game against the New Jersey Nets, an ugly, ugly affair, which saw the Lakers score only 69 points through three quarters against another bad defensive team.  Hopefully the Lakers will be a little more used to playing before the sun starts to descend, but there's also the little matter of this being the last game of a very long road trip.  The Lakers haven't exactly played well on the trip, but due to some poor competition, they still find themselves on a four game win streak.  Will they be satisfied with what they have already accomplished?  Will they be tired from having been on the road for so long, and playing a fair number of games over a short time period?  Will they even be awake from the early start?

That's a lot of questions to answer, enough so that, despite the fact that the Lakers would be clear favorites on both sides of the ball, this is exactly the kind of game I could see the Lakers losing.  Do I think they will lose?  Not really.  The team (read Pau Gasol) has been buoyed by the return of Andrew Bynum, even if big Drew isn't exactly changing games with his play quite yet.  However, a tell-tale sign of whether the Lakers are in trouble or not early is to check out the Raps' offensive rebounding.

The one thing Toronto does truly well is hit the offensive glass.  Defying all manner of rationality, the Lakers are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league despite having two guys on the roster in the top 10 in rebounds per game, and averaging double doubles.  So, if Toronto is getting lots of second chance opportunities right off the bat, you'll know that the Lakers might not be dealing with all those non-basketball related circumstances quite so well.  If it comes to pass, a tough game, and perhaps even a defeat, lie just around the corner.

Even though I can understand how it would happen, it would still be a fairly large disappointment.  C'mon Lakers, we're waking up early just to keep tabs on you, please make it worth our while.