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Lakers vs. Raptors: What to watch

12/19/2010

Come to Toronto for the Ron Artest-themed art exhibits. Stay for the basketball. Here are a few items to keep an eye on once the ball is jumped:

Kobe's pinkie

Another day, another injury to one of Bryant's digits. This time, it's a pinkie, the same one boasting 2009's avulsion fracture heard 'round the world (although the injuries are unrelated). Dave McMenamin reports the diagnosis as a sprain and the X-rays negative. Similar to how the sun always rises in the east, Bryant isn't expected to miss any action as a result of the ailment. That's the good news.

The bad news is, judging by Friday's season-low nine-point performance (3-for-11 shooting), success filling a bucket isn't the same lock. The problem, by the way, isn't limited to Kobe's release. In the past, finger injuries have also hurt his handle, decreasing his ability to create his own shots or whip passes with the usual precision.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

It ain't easy being one of Kobe's fingers.

How long the effects of this condition linger remains to be seen, but Kobe is as seasoned a pro as the NBA offers when it comes to the art of playing through injury. Even if he never truly "heals" until the offseason, I'm not terribly concerned about this newest ding. In the grand scheme of things, I expect Kobe to be fine. But as we've seen in the past, the immediate adjustment period isn't always pretty. Thus, I'm very curious to see how Bryant treats his first opportunity to road test his new hand.

Will the game be used as an experimental ground, shots rapid-fired as Kobe seeks the best technique under these circumstances? Will he view the injury as a challenge (as I believe has been the case in the past)? The game within the game on the schedule? Will he let others carry the day as spots are picked against an opponent that shouldn't require a Mamba-esque performance for victory?

Whatever route he and the Lakers take, it'll be worth watching, as is always the case.

Steve Blake vs. Jerryd Bayless

A showdown between backups doesn't typically move the needle, but this one could be interesting. Bayless is putting up good numbers since becoming an international player of sorts. He's averaging 12.5 points a night on a reasonable 46.6 percent clip from the field, including two games with 20-plus and one with more than 30 during a four-game starting stint. He's also boasting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.1/1.6, easily the best of his young career. Ditto his 41.7 mark from downtown as a Rap. The kid has always boasted the threat of explosiveness, and his start in Toronto has thus far been productive.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Bayless and Blake are quite familiar with each other.

Adding to the intrigue is Blake's familiarity with Bayless. The two were Blazers teammates for 1 1/2 seasons, a massive chunk of the Arizona product's career. They've been on the court together during games. I have to imagine they've battled during several practices. Bench players typically play better in their house, so if familiarity provides an ace up Blake's sleeve to slow Bayless, all the better for the Lakers.

Lethargy as the road trip ends

The Lakers have been away from Los Angeles since Dec. 9. The trip has featured cold weather, early afternoon starts and, Chicago Bulls aside, a lack of inspiration sparked by a elite matchup. Any way you slice it, the Raptors don't buck these trends, and after 10 days of this slog, I have to imagine the Lakers are ready for the roadie to conclude. Throw in the "sleepyheads at 1 p.m. ET" factor, and it's easy to picture the visitors playing without their hearts in it. Can you blame any desires to get the game over with, hop on the plane ASAP and enjoy the Cali sunshine?

No, but that's still a recipe for disappointment.

For starters, L.A. is actually cold and rainy these days, so the return home has "anticlimactic" written all over it under the best of circumstances. Even worse would be a flight home knowing apathy prompted an avoidable loss. And lest anybody forget, when the two-time defending champions aren't sharp, the margin between them and the Raptors can shrink dramatically.

Toronto shredded the Lakers' defense from all areas on the floor during a November meeting at Staples and handily won the rebound battle. Afterward, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes admitted that Toronto's unorthodox style threw everyone for a loop, in part because guys weren't talking and communicating enough. If heads aren't fully engaged in the task at hand, the Lakers could very well be presenting passports to airport security officials wondering how on Earth their lowly squad pulled out a win this afternoon.

The Lakers have come this far carving out a successful road trip. Might as well focus hard for another two to three hours and finish the job.