For the fourth straight game, the Lakers saw the clock hit triple zeroes with them behind on the scoreboard. This time, the final count was 116-107, with the Knicks claiming victory. This game, like several others before it (the Thunder game instantly comes to mind) represented a bit of a moral victory, but for a team that desperately needs actual victories another loss stings.
The game started as so many other games have this season, with the Lakers in an early hole. In the game preview I mentioned how the Lakers would need to rotate to shooters and mark them all over the floor since hitting jumpshots is what the Knicks do. Well, the Lakers only did this occasionally and the Knicks made them pay for it. They knocked down shots from all over the floor and while some of the looks were well guarded and happened to fall anyway, others were the types of looks the Knicks generate all the time due to their precise ball movement and execution in the half court.
Make no mistake, though, there’s really no overstating how hot the Knicks were. It seemed every jumper they took found the bottom of the net and, in some cases, no amount of solid D was going to stop them. However, the Lakers also played certain actions poorly and suffered dearly because of it. Their pick and roll defense was especially poor with Chris Duhon unable to stick with Raymond Felton, even getting beat off the dribble and surrendering the paint when going under the screen to try and cut off his driving angle. Furthermore, whenever the Knicks set screens off the ball, the Lakers’ bigs failed to step out to deny passing angles and that ended up allowing NY’s wings to make easy catches that either led to open jumpers or quick drives into the paint that opened up countless other options.
The combination of an on fire Knicks team and the Lakers’ spotty defense led to the Knicks putting up 55 points in the first 16 minutes of game action. Those numbers are mind boggling, as was the correlating offensive efficiency of 170.4. Things really couldn’t have gotten much worse for the Lakers and if at that point they would have folded up their tents and went home I don’t think it would have surprised anyone.
The Lakers started to calm down and find their stride, however. It helped that Carmelo Anthony had to leave the game with a a lower leg injury, not to return. Melo was the catalyst to the Knicks early barrage (his 22 points in the first quarter were as spectacular for the Knicks as they were upsetting for any Laker fan) and having him in the locker room certainly shifted the tone of the Knicks’ attack and made them a bit less dominant. But with Melo out and the Lakers looking at a deep hole, they did what they could to fight back. After a 41-27 first quarter beat down, the second quarter normalized to the tune of a 27-22 Knick win. Sure, the Lakers still lost the period, but they were at least stable.
In the 2nd half, we saw a different Laker team, however. And I mean that both figuratively and literally. Rather than try to continue to what they’d done in the first half, the Lakers adjusted their style while Mike D’Antoni went to a different lineup to try and find a spark.
In Jamison’s place, Ron saw most of his minutes in the 2nd half at power forward. At small forward, Devin Ebanks got sustained run, playing 22 of the 24 second half minutes. Jodie Meeks played 16 minutes, flanking Kobe in the back court (who never came out) to form a non-traditional duo who shared ball handling responsibilities. At center, Dwight played most of the half, but when he sat Robert Sacre and his big body filled in for him.
Ultimately, this lineup worked for a variety of reasons. The Knicks didn’t pressure the ball so the Lakers wings could all bring the ball up without fear of dealing with a man hounding them. This group also offered a nice blend of toughness, athleticism, shooting, and defense to give the Lakers a fighting chance.
Offensively, the Lakers went to post ups for Ron against the smaller Knicks’ wings and off-set that with pick and rolls between Kobe (or Meeks) and whichever big man was in the game. Even though Ron and Ebanks aren’t shooters in the classic sense, they were able to space the floor with whichever one of them was on the baseline crashing the offensive glass hard. With Kobe (who gutted through back spasms, by the way) using his full offensive arsenal to score points when Ron was producing in the post, the Lakers found enough points to stick around.
And with versatile defenders all over the floor, the Lakers also found some strategies that worked for them on that side of the ball. They started switching nearly every screen, both on and off the ball. This led to Dwight covering the point guard a lot (Felton attacking Dwight became a theme of the 2nd half), but the big man held his own more often than not. The Lakers wings did a good job of hitting the glass to help a perimeter bound Dwight (Kobe had 10 rebounds, Ron and Ebanks combined for 11) and they were able to get some much needed stops.
Of course, there were still break downs. Dwight was stepping out to pick up the guard so the pocket bounce pass was open a lot to Tyson Chandler diving to the rim. The Lakers’ back side wings didn’t always get there in time to disrupt Chandler’s dive and it resulted in fouls that sent Chandler to the line for 12 FTA’s in the 2nd half alone. The Lakers also didn’t grab every needed rebound as the switching left them, at times, confused as to who should be where and which rotation they were supposed to take. All in all, though, the strategy was effective enough to help them climb back into the game.
In the end, though, all the clawing and scrapping only led to a final deficit that wasn’t as bad on the eyes. I was happy to see them fight, but I’d have been happier if they could have completed the improbable. It wasn’t meant to be, though. Tomorrow will give them another chance, this time against the Wizards. We’ll see if they can carry over any of their 2nd half fight, and strategy, into that game.