Records: Lakers37-16 (2nd in West), Knicks 26-25 (6th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers112.3 (2nd in NBA), Knicks 110.2 (7th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers105.0 (10th in NBA), Knicks 109.8 (23rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Knicks: Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari, Amar’e Stoudemire, Timofey Mozgov
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Knicks Kelenna Azubuike & Eddy Curry (out), Ronny Turiaf (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won 3 games in a row – all on the road – and just vanquished the Celtics. Needless to say, things are going well right now. And while it’s easy to look at the fact that the Lakers have been playing better on offense (keyed by a resurgent Gasol and the continued brilliance of Kobe) the key to the recent strong play has been the Lakers defense. We saw it last night when the team held the C’s to only 33 second half points and we saw it in Memphis when the Grizz only tallied 84 points when they fell to LA. In fact, in the Lakers’ last 4 games only one team has cracked 90 points and that was the hot shooting Hornets, but even that game ended with a fizzle as New Orleans only scored 13 points in the final period. If the Lakers can continue to put the clamps on opponents, I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep seeing victories.
The Knicks Coming in: At this point, I think it’s safe to say that the Knicks have issues. They’ve lost 3 of their last 4 games and since losing to the Lakers back on January 9th, they’ve lost 10 of 15. They now sit only one game over .500 and seem to be scrambling to find their lost mojo.
One theory that I have in regards to the Knicks struggles is the fact that they’re now the team engulfed in Carmelo Anthony trade rumors. If you think back to when the Nets pulled their name from the list of teams actively pursuing ‘Melo, one of the reasons their owner cited was that the players were distracted by having their futures with the team always being put front and center. We all think of trade rumors as part of the business of the NBA, but when the media and fans are speculating about you suddenly no longer being on the team, that can have an adverse affect on a player’s performance. Right now, that’s the reality for the Knicks. Fans at MSG are chanting “we want ‘Melo”, and the discussions about Knick ‘X’ moving on to Denver or Minnesota in a trade to acquire Anthony are always present. None of this can be good for the mental health of a ball club and I think we’re seeing the repercussions of this with the Knicks’ recent slide.
Knicks Blogs: Check out Knickerblogger for all their great insight, then visit their stats page for more good information on the teams around the league. And if you want even more of me, you can see the Q & A I did with them in the lead up to tonight’s game.
Keys to game: Can the Lakers keep their high going? Big wins can often be followed by big let downs if you’re not careful. The Knicks are more than capable of playing well and you know they’ll have a great crowd for the Lakers’ only visit of the year, so the Lakers must not suffer from any lack of focus tonight. MSG will be rocking and the Lakers better be prepared for the atmosphere that they’re walking into.
Offensively, the Lakers must attack inside. Gasol and Bynum have major advantages against Amar’e in the paint and while Mozgov is a hustling big man that is active on D, he’s not Mutombo in the middle. Much like last night, I’d love to see the Lakers work the ball to their big men early and allow Kobe to hang back and pick his spots.
That said, Kobe also should not go into a shell on offense. Fields is a good defender but he’s still a rookie and hasn’t yet seen Kobe’s full bag of tricks. I’d love to see Kobe continue to attack the paint, force help from STAT and Mozgov and then hit his bigs for easy buckets. I also think he’ll be able to go into the post at the weak side elbow and force the Knicks to either double team or be beaten by turnaround jumpers from Kobe’s sweet spot. This action will be more available when Odom replaces Pau or Bynum and Kobe can move out of the two guard front of the Triangle and onto the wing/post, so look for that change when Phil calls to the bench.
Defensively, we’ll see what type of approach the Knicks take tonight. The last time these teams played I thought the Knicks did themselves a major disservice by going away from the P&R in favor of Amar’e isolations at the elbow. The Knicks did try to get creative by running hand off sequences with Amar’e initiating offense but by going away from their bread and butter of the Felton/STAT P&R, they limited their options on O and forced Amar’e to continuously drive into two 7 footers looking to block and alter his shot.
Tonight, I expect the Knicks to go back to the P&R as they’ve now got their spacers back. With Gallo and Fields camping in the corners, the Knicks will likely look to try and space out the Lakers’ D so that Amar’e has a free path on dives to the rim. In order to counter this action the Lakers will need to have good backline rotations by their big men and wing defenders will have to help off shooters while still showing the ability to recover back to contest shots if the ball gets kicked out. The Knicks aren’t quite at the Suns’ level in running this play but we know that D’Antoni is still trying to duplicate that success.
The other key areas to watch tonight are rebounds and transition baskets. The Knicks rank as one of the weaker rebounding teams on both backboards so the Lakers should be able to take advantage of this fact by hitting their O glass hard. NY relies heavily on guards to get dirty and hit the defensive glass so the Lakers bigs should recognize that they have an advantage inside by moving aggressively to the boards and getting extra possessions.
And by making the Knicks stay home to protect their defensive glass, here’s hoping the Lakers can control the pace of the game. The Knicks play at the 3rd fastest pace in the league (with D’Antoni at the healm this shouldn’t be a surprise) and will try to run at every opportunity. Unlike his old Suns teams, though, the Knicks don’t always just run to the three point line. Chandler, Fields, and Felton will all happily attack the basket in the open court so the Lakers must actively build a wall against those players and block off the paint. Galinari however will almost always run to the three point line so he must be marked in the open court as he drifts to the extended wing and corner to get off open threes.
In the end, this game is one that should be won by the Lakers. The Knicks a game opponent, but they’re a wounded team that does not have the highest confidence. I know the Lakers will be a bit spent after playing an emotional game and when combined with the Knicks want to push the ball they may be more tired than normal tonight. That said, the Lakers strengths directly challenge the Knicks’ weaknesses and plan of attack needs to reflect that. Let’s keep this streak going with another win.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time out West on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.