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Lewenberg: Raptors downplay Kobe's return

Josh Lewenberg, TSN.ca
12/7/2013 10:42:09 PM
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LOS ANGELES - The Raptors will be at the edge of the NBA spotlight Sunday evening, whether they like it or not.

Basketball fans around the globe will be watching as Kobe Bryant makes his season debut - 240 days after tearing his left Achilles - against Toronto, a team he has used as his own personal punching bag.

Bryant announced his return in a video posted on his Facebook page Friday afternoon and the game, which airs at 9:30pm et on TSN2, will also be picked up by NBA TV in the US.

All eyes will be locked on the Lakers' future Hall-of-Famer, all except the Raptors' coach, who would rather avoid becoming a sideshow in the Bryant circus that is sure to consume Staples Center on Sunday.

"Everybody's going to be watching Kobe come back but I'm totally concerned about the Toronto Raptors," said Dwane Casey, hoping to put an end to his team's five-game skid. "No disrespect to Kobe, he's one of our greats in the game, we need him in the game, but for us I'm worried about the Toronto Raptors, our physical disposition, our approach, our toughness."

Whether he cares to admit it, the Lakers did Casey and Toronto's coaching staff a favour by making their announcement public Friday rather than keeping Bryant's status under wraps until game day. As the home team - with an assist from the NBA - shamelessly builds the hype for Bryant's return, the visitors are trying desperately to dodge it.

"We've got to go out there and play hard regardless, [even] if we weren't on TV, if we were just playing in front of five people," said California-native DeMar DeRozan after practicing at the Clippers training center in LA Saturday afternoon.

A match-up with the struggling Raptors is a fitting return for Bryant, who has torched Toronto throughout his 17-year career. Bryant is averaging 28.3 points in 29 games against the Raptors, his second highest average against any opponent, inflated by his infamous 81-point performance. Bryant has only lost to Toronto at Staples once, back in 2001, and the Raptors haven't defeated the Lakers in LA since.

Now the question is: How will the 35-year-old fare coming off major surgery, after an eight-month layoff?

"Me, knowing him, he wouldn't come back if he didn't think he could play at a dominant level," DeRozan insisted.

"I think it's mixed emotion for everybody. Everybody's just eager to see how he'll be. Everybody always tries to doubt him in some way and he always seems to prove people wrong. So it's just another test for him, we'll see how he bounces back."

Bryant should see limited playing time in his first game back, roughly 20-30 minutes of action per Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. Although working one of the all-time greats back into your lineup isn't a bad problem to have, D'Antoni hopes it won't disrupt the chemistry that's been built over the team's first 19 games.

"They've been moving the basketball well, [doing] a lot of things [D'Antoni was] doing in New York with the same sets, same things he was doing in Phoenix," Casey said of the 10-9 Lakers. "A lot of pick-and-rolls, the ball was humming, moving and I assume they're going to do the same thing with [Bryant] coming back. We just have to be prepared."

With Bryant hurt, Steve Nash out of the lineup - he's already been ruled out for Sunday's game - and Dwight Howard in Houston, these Lakers have looked more like a vintage D'Antoni team than last season's incarnation ever did. This team has played at the NBA's third quickest pace, making more three-point shots per game than any other in the league. Now how do they integrate Bryant?

The Raptors - in full out "we need to worry about ourselves"-mode Saturday - are navigating through an identity crisis of their own. Opponents have shot over 45 per cent in each game during their losing streak and have exceeded 100 points in four of the five contests. Their latest defeat, a 106-97 loss in Phoenix Friday, exposed a lack of toughness on both ends of the floor.

"We've gotten away from that for whatever reason," Casey said after his team was out-rebounded 53-36 by the Suns, including an 18-11 disparity on the offensive glass. "We're not the hit first team that we were."

To make matters worse, Toronto may be without its most physical player on Sunday after Tyler Hansbrough sprained his left shoulder against the Suns. The Raptors' forward underwent an MRI in LA Saturday morning and the team is awaiting the results before determining his status.

Playing on the big stage, with the focus surrounding the other team and its best player, the Raptors have an opportunity to spoil the party and prove themselves in front of a large audience.

"We've got to get out of this slump," DeRozan said. "We understand it doesn't feel good, it's a bad feeling and we've got to turn it around."

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