A Toronto Raptors team without Kyle Lowry bounced back from Monday’s ugly loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers by toppling LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, 111-98 Thursday night.
Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points – including five three pointers – to lead the way as the Raptors improved to 49-20. Norman Powell stepped up with 20 points and eight rebounds off the bench in one of his best games of the season, which included three from beyond the arc.
James, in his lone visit to Toronto this season, had 29 points, four rebounds and six assists as L.A.’s top scorer. He was aided by little-known Alex Caruso, who helped the Lakers with six points as the Lakers fell to 31-37.
James was back in Toronto for the first time since he orchestrated a second successive sweep of the Raptors last spring, which caused social media to erupt with “LeBronto” jokes and “Bron’s Plan” memes at the Raps’ expense. For the third consecutive season, the James-led Cavaliers served as the roadblock that derailed the Raptors’ playoff run.
This humdrum Lakers squad was not what most imagined would evolve when James signed in Los Angeles during free agency. The team visiting Toronto on Thursday was bland and injury-depleted, playing without Lonzo Ball, Tyson Chandler, Brandon Ingram and Lance Stephenson. This squad consisted of James, Rajon Rondo, and a collection of reserves and G-Leaguers on two-way contracts.
At the end a nightmarish campaign, James will miss the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons. With the megastar gone from the East, several teams have beefed up to contend for the conference crown.
“I’m not so sure that him leaving has helped us much,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We aren’t gonna know that answer until a few months from now probably. It’s certainly made the East interesting in a different way. It was ‘oh you had to get through him,’ but now you’ve gotta get through a lot.”
James, who recently passed Michael Jordan for fourth place on the NBA’s career scoring list, had faced the Raptors 66 times throughout his career going into Thursday’s game. In those games – 52 in the regular season and 14 in the playoffs – he had a potent 53-13 record.
Nurse described the complications of trying to defend James, who is a deft passer and a “freight-train” rambling down the floor as opponents bounce off him while he lays it into the basket.
“Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of hours of sleep over the years against this guy,” Nurse said before the game. “[He] puts you in every – really every – conceivable combination of pick-and-roll, big-small, small-big, 2-3, 2-4, 5-4. So your coverages get long and complicated.”
When 34-year-old James exploded for dunks Thursday night, the Toronto fans couldn’t help but gasp admiringly at the man who had caused them such pain in recent years.
Lowry sat out Thursday’s game because of a left ankle sprain suffered Monday against Cleveland. Jeremy Lin started in his place, contributing nine points and seven rebounds. When Lin had to take a breather, the Raps went sans point guard, leaning on Leonard, Powell and Pascal Siakam to bring the ball up the floor.
Back home following a three-game road trip, the Raps were missing Serge Ibaka, too. The Congolese big man is serving a three-game suspension for his fight with Marquese Chriss in Monday’s clumsy 126-101 loss to the Cavs.
Gasol started at centre and contributed 15 points and seven boards. Toronto used young Chris Boucher off the bench (two points, two rebounds). To help out with depth at the centre spot, the Raptors signed Eric Moreland to a 10-day contract, and he made a brief debut to close out the night.
Siakam scored 16 points and lead the Raptors in assists with six.
Next up for Toronto is the third game of the season series against Dwane Casey’s Pistons, Sunday in Detroit, a series the Raptors trail 0-2.