Records: Lakers 9-13 (12th in the West), Knicks 16-5 (1st in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.9 (6th in the NBA), Knicks 110.4 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.4 (15th in the NBA), Knicks 101.6 (16th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Chris Duhon, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Dwight Howard
Knicks: Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Pau Gasol (out), Steve Blake (out); Knicks: Amar’e Stoudemire (out), Marcus Camby (out), Iman Shumpert (out), J.R. Smith (probable)
The Lakers Coming in: First, some housekeeping. As noted above, Pau Gasol will not play tonight due to his sore knees. Nash and Blake, of course, also remain out. There have been hints that the Lakers are looking at reinforcements at point guard while Nash and Blake heal up. The options are slim, but doing their due diligence would be wise simply because they could use some help in that area.
In the past couple of weeks, the Lakers have replaced their consistently inconsistent play with consistently poor play; what used to be an up and down team is now only down. They are 3-7 in their last 10 games and are only 4-8 under Mike D’Antoni. What was once a respectable defense, at least in terms of defensive efficiency, is plummeting quickly, now ranking 15th in points allowed per possession. And while their offense remains firmly in the top 10, we’re also seeing less ball and player movement in recent games with only Kobe’s individual scoring prowess propping up their points per game.
As I said after the Cavs game, the model the Lakers are using now is broken. They’re not playing with nearly enough effort or energy, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With three of their top eight players out of the rotation, they can not afford to play a relaxed brand of basketball for even a quarter, but that’s exactly what we’re seeing for stretches even longer than that. At some point, this team needs to look in the mirror and simply decide that they’ve had enough of how they’re playing and change their approach. After the Cavs game, Kobe and Dwight (and several other players) spoke in tones and terms that reflect an understanding that they know what needs to be done. They must now turn their talk into action.
The Knicks Coming in: If you watch the Knicks play, you’re likely to see what you thought you would get from the Lakers this season. The ball moves, the shots fall, and there is a confidence that they can win every game. This team knows that they are good and go out there and prove it to you through executing on offense and doing enough on defense to win them games.
In the middle of their offensive attack is Carmelo Anthony, the National Team version. With Amar’e Stoudemire out with injury, ‘Melo has slid up to play PF and the results have been fantastic. He’s taking bigger defenders out on the floor and either shooting his jumper or driving by his man to get good shots close to the rim. With the defense collapsing around him, he’s also moving the ball well to open teammates and they’re either hitting shots or attacking the off the dribble and making good reads to further put the defense on it’s heels.
To put it simply, they’re playing good team basketball where everyone seems to know and understand their role. They are deep, talented, and have bought in to what their coach wants. They spread the floor with shooters (Jason Kidd, JR Smith, Novak, Felton, Melo) and then make the defense pay with ball movement to the open man. In a nutshell, this team is really good, even if their defense has been slipping lately.
Keys to game: The Knicks are undefeated at home (8-0). The Lakers are one of the worst road teams in the league (2-7). Just from this standpoint, the Lakers are in for a difficult challenge.
The Lakers’ biggest concern tonight should revolve around their defense. As noted above, the Knicks have the 2nd most efficient offense in the league and it’s predicated on exploiting mismatches and moving the ball to the open man. They make the defense rotate multiple times in a single possession and then make shots from beyond the arc when that final closeout is late. The Lakers, meanwhile, don’t like to rotate on defense. They don’t like to make the extra effort, they don’t like cover for each other, they don’t like do the dirty work that comes with guarding multiple passes in a single possession.
Tonight, if they don’t do better at this, they will get blown out. The Knicks will make open jumpers and they will punish you with the same action over and over until you prove you can stop it. Then, to be sure, they’ll try again. The Lakers guards and wings must be ready to slow down dribble penetration, the bigs must be ready to hedge and recover, and the back side defender (whoever it is) must be ready to help the helper. Defending well in the halfcourt is especially important since the Knicks only run selectively.
When the Lakers have the ball, they must do more than give the ball to Kobe or Dwight and stand there. Against the Cavs, the Lakers eschewed the P&R to play more post up and isolation basketball and it didn’t work. Too many times the ball was dumped into Dwight or Kobe in the post (or, for Kobe, on the wing) and everyone watched as one of them tried to beat his man one on one. The lack of ball and player movement allowed the defense to dig in, squeeze the paint, and force live ball turnovers that were turned into easy baskets.
Moving the ball is paramount against a team that has smart defenders (which the Knicks have). It gets them thinking within a defensive possession and doesn’t allow them to dictate how a possession unfolds. As noted earlier, the Knicks are slipping on defense and a lot of that is due to good ball and player movement that forces the D to move on a string rather than allowing them to load up with Chandler covering for them on the back end. Make them choose between guarding the high post flash and the weak side corner. Make them have to help off the strong side corner and give up the open jumper. Make them have to hedge on the ball and then scurry back to Dwight as he bullies his way to the front of the rim. There will be options to exploit, but the team must seek them out, not just wait for them to materialize.
This game has also has several backstories. D’Antoni makes his return to the Garden where the team he left a season ago is playing very well since he departed. His new team is struggling and just came off what could be the worst defeat of the year. Things look dreary and the light at the end of the tunnel could just as easily be a train as it is the path to redemption. The Lakers would be wise to channel some of their frustration (and the energy that comes with playing the Garden) tonight. No one expects them to win this game, they might as well keep the world guessing.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.