The Sports Daily > Hoop Heads North
Lakers outlast the Raptors…where do the Raptors go from here?

The Toronto Raptors looked to make it 2 in a row on the road as they faced Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, coming off a much needed win against the Phoenix Suns. Alas, the Raptors ended up with a feeling and result they have experienced far too often this season…heartbreak. They fell to the Los Angeles Lakers 118-116 in an overtime thriller.

A tough shooting night for Rudy Gay, going 7-26 from the field (including missing a shot for a chance to send the game to double OT), but DeMar DeRozan & Alan Anderson played fantastic basketball for the Raptors providing clutch baskets & solid play on both ends of the court throughout the game. In another Raptors sub-plot this season, Andrea Bargnani re-injured his elbow early on in the contest and did not return to the game. Toronto was leading 89-79 heading in to the 4th quarter, but the Lakers went on to outscore the Raptors 30-20, including incredible clutch shots by Kobe Bryant down the stretch in regulation, to send the game into overtime.

Kobe Bryant was an absolute beast, posting 41 points & 12 assists for the Lakers. Dwight Howard also had an excellent game, posting 24 points, 13 rebounds, 3 steals, and 5 blocks. That effort marked back-to-back games where Kobe has posted 40+ points & 10+ assists. The 'Black Mamba' is doing everything he can to make good on his guarantee that the Lakers will make the playoffs.

The real question is: Where do the Raptors go from here? With 19 games left in the regular season, and 8 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference (who also own any potential tiebrakers against the Raptors), it appears that the playoff goal & dreams for this season are out of reach.

Rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have been brought along slowly this season, but it's definitely time to start letting these two get legitimate minutes each night. In my humble opinion, there is no reason why both of them should be seeing any less than 20 minutes per night. Both players will be key members of the team going forward most likely, and they need in-game experience to truly improve.

The Toronto Raptors are now 8-8 since Rudy Gay has joined the team, which is a drastic improvement from the forgettable 4-19 record the Raptors started with, but are still 24-39 overall. Rudy Gay's contract has 2 more seasons remaining, with a $19 million dollar player-option in the final year. There is almost no scenario where Rudy wouldn't exercise that (unless the Raptors were to trade him before that – which I don't anticipate them doing), but the Raptors need to make sure they are offering a realistic contract extension when that deadline comes (July 2015). Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo awaits his fate with the franchise this off-season. Will the new MLSE Board of Governors elect to re-sign him, or go a new direction?

So, this is where reality starts to set in for Raptors fans…looking ahead to this summer's draft, which the Raptors currently only have a protected 1st round pick (protected top 3 and 15-30), otherwise it will belong to the Oklahoma City Thunder (who acquired it from Houston in the James Harden trade, by way of the Kyle Lowry trade that Houston made with Toronto).  Perhaps a trade (Bargnani), amnesty provision, or contract expirations will free up some cap space to acquire more pieces, or one more KEY player, to help the Raptors long term.

Ultimately, the Raptors have a VERY SOLID nucleus. Had they acquired Rudy Gay earlier in the season perhaps they would be in a much better position record wise than they are now. That is all hypothetical, and the Raptors must focus on gelling as a team and continuing to play 48 minutes each night; in order to close out games they have control of, and not let teams back in the game…which, unfortunately for the Raptors, usually leads to heartbreak.

(photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)