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Lakers reveal 3 keys to a repeat in win vs. Raptors

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers visited Tampa to face the displaced Toronto Raptors.

The matchup marked the first of a five-game East Coast swing for L.A., who were playing without Andre Drummond (toe) for the third straight game.

It could have been another dull affair; the latest underwhelming performance to dismiss as the Lakers await reinforcements.

Instead — on the evening assistant coach Phil Handy belatedly received his 2019 championship ring — L.A.’s energized 110-101 win spotlighted the keys to a repeat (beyond health). In all, the Lakers played their finest game since James joined Davis on the injury list on March 20.

The first half featured some of the Lakers’ sharpest offensive execution of the season — with or without James. L.A. hit nine 3-pointers en route to 40 points in the opening quarter and never looked back.

The Lakers shot 59.5% in the first half and had a 29-13 rebounding advantage. They were up 68-42 at halftime and built a 34-point lead at one point.

The ball movement and defensive synchronicity were noticeable from the get-go. Frank Vogel was satisfied with his squad’s response to the non-competitive loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Easter.

“How mad are we? We got embarrassed Sunday against the Clippers. We were all on a long flight, angry about how that game went. And our mindset was to take it out on the Raptors, and we did,” Vogel said. “Built with great ball movement, and an angry, nasty defensive disposition. We executed our coverage with a high level of focus and detail, and we brought a great disposition, great defensive disposition to the game.”

It helped that the Raptors suited up without Kyle Lowry (foot) and Fred VanVleet (hip). Yet, the factors behind the Lakers’ W — which put them at 4-5 sans James and Davis, keeping apace in the standings — may hold the keys to an 18th banner.

1) 3-point shooting

It has been discussed ad nauseam (guilty as charged): the Lakers have struggled to hit 3s. By any metric — individual, collective, wide-open, etc. — L.A. has been a bottom-10 shooting group for over two months.

That inconsistency led to the signing of Ben McLemore, which was announced during Tuesday’s contest. Vogel and others have cited the necessity of 3-point shooting while they scrap for buckets, and McLemore is a logical addition as a career 36% 3-point shooter who shot 40.0% on 6.4 attempts per game for the Houston Rockets in 2019-20. (McLemore should play on Thursday vs. the Miami Heat, per Vogel.)

Against Toronto, the Lakers didn’t look like they needed outside help. L.A. drained 13-0f-22 triples in the first half, and this unfamiliar heat dejected their opponent. Seven of eight Lakers made at least two treys.

“I think ball movement, ball energy makes 3-pointers makes contagious,” said Alex Caruso, who had 13 points and four assists and hit 3-of-4 from deep. “We’re just creating great shots. We got extra passes. We’re getting to the paint, spraying it out to open guys and depending on who is helping.”

The Lakers have been focused on offensive fundamentals and decision-making in practice and film study over the past week, and it showed at Amalie Arena.

“I just tried to carry over what we watched on film from last game,” Caruso added. “Just playing with a disposition, a team energy, a will of getting stops, playing physical, sharing the ball. … We’re just creating great shots … we’re just making good decisions with our teammates.”

When LeBron and AD return, the Lakers will need to make timely triples to secure another title, as they did last summer. For now, though, the supporting cast showed the powerful effect their sharpshooting can have when harnassed.

2) Chemistry

Besides talent, culture and chemistry drove the Lakers to the 2019-20 crown in the bubble as much as any other traits. The Lakers don’t put up with shaky defensive effort, while group dinners have largely replaced group drama for two seasons running.

Those qualities manifested against the Raptors, in spirit and execution.

The Lakers dished out 29 assists on 39 buckets, their most without James, and their cohesiveness on both ends resembled the team that routed the Sacramento Kings last Friday — not the group that wilted to the Clippers.

They also had each other’s backs. Late in the first quarter, Dennis Schröder hard-fouled Raptors wing OG Anunoby while simultaneously breaking his fall. Anunoby took issue with Schröder’s grapple and suplexed the guard onto the hardwood. Montrezl Harrell came to the defense of his teammate, resulting in an ejection for him and Anunoby.

“I just tried to foul him hard that he don’t get an and-1, that’s it. I mean … but what he did is just unnecessary,” Schröder said. “Gotta go to the WWE with that. Not with basketball.”

Harrell was not remorseful postgame, though he wasn’t holding a grudge against OG, Gary Trent Jr., nor anyone else.

“My beef was with anybody who didn’t have a Lakers jersey, man,” Harrell explained. “That’s who my beef was with. Simple as that … My teammate was sweeped off his feet … and dropped on his back. So my beef with was with whoever had a white jersey on.”

Harrell called the ref’s decision “wrong” and said he “didn’t really get an explanation.”

Schröder appreciated the gesture, and he said he personally thanked Trezz afterward.

“I would do the same for anybody in this locker room,” he said. “We’re brothers, family.”

Throughout the night, the Lakers’ bench was extremely fired up — particularly during an early onslaught of 3-pointers and slick dishing. The Lakers were sparked by the energy from the sidelines — including from Davis and James — and vice versa.

These are the intangible moments that sew the texture of championship teams.

3) Depth

After Harrell’s ejection, the Lakers were down their top three bigs for the final 38 minutes of action.

Never fear: Marc Gasol is (still) here.

Gasol has been ballin’ since he lost the starting gig. In Drummond’s debut, the Big Spaniard was valuable in relief. Against Sacramento, he posted nine rebounds and six assists, and he was the only Laker to hit double figures in the Clips debacle.

On Tuesday, he was the team’s best player, dropping 13 points (6-of-9 shooting overall, 1-of-3 3-pointers), nine boards, five dimes, and four blocks.

“He’s been great,” Vogel said. “His job is to facilitate offensively and give us perimeter shooting and give us a great screener, and he was all of those tonight. And obviously, he’s a great defensive center.”

Gasol’s role has come under a microscope (again, guilty) since Drummond came aboard. On Friday, the veteran spoke ominously about remaining in L.A. On Tuesday, he sounded more dedicated.

“I’m fully committed to the team,” Gasol said. “I’ll stay ready when my number is called. I understand we have to get Andre acclimated to what we’re trying to do. … I’ll be ready. No matter if it’s five minutes, 10 minutes, some nights I may not play … but I’m fully committed to this team.”

Drummond will be back Thursday. But Gasol is making a case to remain in the rotation.

Talen Horton-Tucker (17 points) led the team in scoring for the first time, while Devontae Cacok set career bests in points (10) and rebounds (eight). Markieff Morris (15 points, nine assists) continued to be “the unsung hero of this stretch,” per Vogel, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 13.

Overall, seven different Lakers scored in double figures, and the team shot 49.4% from the field and 18-of-40 from downtown.

When fully healthy, the Lakers remain the deepest team in basketball. They’ve cultivated a winning culture that will pay dividends in adverse circumstances. If they make 3-pointers, too? Forget it.