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The defending champion Raptors will be an important (and fascinating) test for the Lakers

The Lakers will face one of the more interesting matchups of their early schedule when the Raptors come to town tonight.

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Lakers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers don’t have a ton of interesting games this month. That’s in part because they aren’t playing very many good teams, with only four of their first 10 games coming against organizations that made the playoffs last year amidst a light opening schedule overall. One of those playoff teams — the Defending Champion Toronto Raptors™️ — comes to town tonight.

However, while this version of the roster may still be walking around, the Raptors that won the 2019 title are extinct, snuffed out by the meteoric impact of Kawhi Leonard’s free agency departure (and to a lesser extent, the exodus of now-Lakers guard Danny Green).

But unlike the actual dinosaurs — who went out soft IMO — these Raptors are still not just breathing, but presenting a real threat to the rest of the NBA landscape. The Lakers (7-1) and Raptors (6-2) both have among the league’s better records so far, but have done it in drastically different ways, one of several reasons that Toronto will be maybe the most interesting barometer for the Lakers in this early slate.

The Raptors have survived Leonard and Green’s departures to post a top-10 offense so far, scoring 109.3 points per 100 possessions while shooting 40.4% on threes, marks that rank seventh and second in the league, respectively. The team has compensated for its free agency losses (in part) by firing way from deep, as 38.3% of the Raptor’s offense has come on threes in that time frame, with only the Mike D’Antoni/Daryl Morey/James Harden-fueled, infamously three-happy Rockets having more of their scoring come from behind the arc.

That strength runs right up against the Lakers’ own skills, as L.A. has the best defense in the league heading into tonight’s matchup, allowing just 96.5 points per 100 possessions. And despite the team’s emphasis on protecting the rim, the Lakers have remained stout in large part by taking away what Toronto has been doing well.

The Lakers are among the best in the league in both the amount of threes they allow their opponents to take (just 36.8% of opposing shots) and make (30%). The former ranks 14th in the league, so while the latter may have a little to do with luck, it still ranks third in the NBA. That could also have something to do with how active the Lakers have been against the shots they do “allow,” as the team’s internal metrics said they contested 88% of the Miami Heat’s shots the other night, an incredible number.

All of this sets up an interesting stylistic dichotomy, with the proverbial unstoppable force meeting a corresponding immovable object. Will the Lakers be able to shut down a team that hunts threes as relentlessly as the Raptors? Will the Raptors be able to avoid the temptation to take the kinds of shots the Lakers try to bait them in to? All of it will be fascinating to watch for.

There are still mitigating factors here, of course, because the entire Lakers’ early season schedule is filled with flawed teams. Will Anthony Davis be able to bottle up rising star Pascal Siakam and really gum up the works for Toronto? Will LeBron James continue to remind us of his unofficial ownership of the Raptors, and why for a brief while Toronto was perhaps better known as LeBronto? Will L.A. Nightlife remain undefeated on Sunday after the Raptors stay in Los Angeles on Saturday night? Any combination of these events, or any one of them individually would make this game a lot less interesting if they happen.

Still, nothing is guaranteed for L.A., because the Lakers have played with their food plenty this year, narrowly escaping a few games that should have been losses with victories by ripping off incredible runs. The Raptors are too well-coached and smart for such a strategy to be counted on here. Will L.A. realize that and take care of business from the jump? Figuring out if they have that mode in them is yet another reason this contest is worth watching.

Notes and Updates

Toronto and L.A. tip off at 6:30 p.m. PST at Staples Center, and the game will be televised locally on Spectrum Sportsnet. If you’d like to buy tickets to the game against the Raptors, you can do so from StubHub here.

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