Records: Lakers 1-2 (9th in the West), Knicks 1-1 (9th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (13th in NBA), Knicks 100.1 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.8 (7th in NBA), Knicks 106.7 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Josh McRoberts, Pau Gasol
Knicks: Toney Douglas, Landry Fields, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out), Matt Barnes (questionable); Knicks: Baron Davis (out), Iman Shumpert (out), Jared Jeffries (out)
The Lakers Coming in: It took three games, but the Lakers finally got their first win of the season in their last contest. Coming off a day’s rest, here’s hoping the team can carry over some of the positives from the Jazz game and continue to cut down on the negatives that plagued them in the losses vs. the Bulls and Kings.
We’re already starting to see improvement in how well the Lakers take care of the ball (committing only 20 turnovers combined in the last two games after posting 17 against Chicago) and in playing defense for full possessions by better closing out on shooters and then finishing with defensive rebounds. That said, the Utah game was only one contest and the Lakers must carry over these good habits tonight if they hope to beat a motivated Knicks team.
The Knicks Coming in: And the Knicks will be motivated after the loss they endured to the Warriors last night. The Knicks were able to keep the contest close (even lead for a good portion of the game) until the Warriors’ defense picked up its intensity and Monta Ellis went into full playmaker mode in the 4th quarter, dishing out assists while also getting his own shot to fall. The Knicks simply couldn’t deal with his speed turning the corner and his ability to break down the defense had the Knicks scrambling around to the point that they gave up a few too many jumpers.
Beyond just last night’s game, though, the team we’ll see tonight is a bit different than the one from last year. Gone is Billups and in is Tyson Chandler. The draft yielded a promising young guard many NY fans are high on (Iman Shumpert), but he’s now sidelined with a knee injury. The Knicks have added Mike Bibby and Baron Davis to try and replace what Chauncey brought them but Bibby hasn’t yet shown he’s any better than the player the Heat happily let walk and Baron is still on the shelf with his bad back. This leaves guys like Bill Walker and Steve Novak earning minutes and while their both role players with skills that can help a team, they’ve not exactly top level depth. We’ll see what this team is capable of once all the parts are healthy and clicking, but that time is not yet now and the team will simply have to take its lumps until it is.
Keys to game: The Knicks have reorganized their team in the hopes of establishing more of a defensive mindset. With Tyson Chandler anchoring the pivot, scoring in the paint against this team got more treacherous. Running Center based P&R’s is also more difficult, what with Tyson’s foot speed and long arms disrupting driving lanes and passing angles whenever the ball handler tries to turn the corner.
So, the Lakers will need to subtly tweak their offensive sets to better attack the Knicks. While running the P&R shouldn’t be abandoned, it should be run more in doses and at defenders not named Chandler. I expect Amare to start out on McRoberts so LA may be better served running this action with Josh setting the initial screen on Kobe’s man. This would let McRoberts to dive hard to the rim while Gasol circles back to the elbow area to make himself available as an outlet should Kobe get trapped or the dive man is taken away. This will allow Pau to set up for his elbow jumper or to take one dribble to get to the rim and/or turn his back to set up one of his many post moves.
The Lakers should also continue to run their screen actions to free up Kobe at the elbow/top of the key area(s) in order to get him his shots in these preferred spots. Allowing Kobe to make his catches in these areas will also set him up well to unleash is triple threat arsenal on Fields where he can easily get off his jumper or use his variety of jab steps to free him up to get to the rim. These sets will work especially well whenever Murphy and Gasol are on the court as these are the bigs that provide the best spacing and draw their defenders away from the rim for Kobe to more easily get to the basket.
Defensively the Lakers have a tall task in front of them but it will be different than what other Mike D’Antoni units have offered up. In order to secure Chandler, the Knicks had to give up Chauncey Billups and his departure has weakened the Knicks’ P&R game. They use Melo as the creator in these sets more often now – and he’s proven to be a good passer when handling in the P&R – but it’s obvious that Anthony is still most comfortable isolated on the wing where he can use his own triple threat set up to abuse defenders. The diverse ways in which the Knicks use Melo will put a lot of pressure on Ebanks as he’ll need to navigate screens both in the P&R and off ball, work on an island on the wing, and battle in the post against the brutish Anthony. If the 2nd year pro isn’t up to the task, don’t be surprised if MWP makes an early appearance to battle Melo as these two have an extensive history.
Slowing Amare will also be key but he, more than any other holdover Knick, has suffered from the Knicks’ P&R game not being as sharp. Stoudemire is still getting his numbers with relatively good efficiency (18.5 points on 52% shooting) but he’s not yet put up the types of stats that had him mentioned among MVP candidates for long stretches last season. This is likely because he’s shooting a few more jumpers this year than last as he finds himself making catches further away from the hoop and settling for more jumpers. Last night against the Warriors, Amare often floated around the perimeter and served as an outlet when plays broke down and it resulted in him taking long two’s. Maybe tonight he’ll be more aggressive, but I hope the Lakers lay off him and encourage him to flash the range on his jumper. If he buries them, tip your cap and change ends. If he misses, you’ve kept one of the more explosive finishers in the league outside the paint for another possession.
Lastly, I’d like to see the Lakers continue their strong work on the glass. They’ve won or tied the rebounding battle in every game so far and you can see there’s more of a concerted effort to hit the defensive glass by all 5 players. The guards are doing a better job of closing down the foul line and the bigs (for the most part) are attacking the ball when it comes off the rim. That effort will need to continue tonight as Amare and Chandler are two active bodies that will go after offensive rebounds and Melo is one of the strongest SF’s in the game, thus making him very difficult to move out of the lane when he goes to the O-glass. LA will need to keep these three off the glass and the guards will need to make sure that they both help down but not too far so as to give up long rebounds when the Knicks miss three pointers.
Overall, the Lakers need this game to build some momentum moving forward. Bynum will be back in the next contest and bringing him into the fold with a .500 record would be worlds better than this team being 1-3. It’s early yet, of course, but with a shortened season, this team doesn’t want to start in too big a hole.
Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radion 710AM.