So, what happens when I miss a couple of games to tend to family business? Of course, the Lakers win back to back games on the road, beating the 76ers on a Brandon Ingram game winner and the Hornets with a smothering defensive effort in the 2nd half and a Jordan Clarkson 4th quarter triumph. Maybe I should miss more games…
Too bad, though, I’m back for this one. After all, everyone loves a game at the Garden in NY.
The Lakers now stand 10-15 on the year, a credible record for a team clearly still finding its way. They’re still top 10 in Defensive Rating, bottom 3 in Offensive Rating, and fans are still nipping at Luke’s ankles about rotations and lineup combinations and any other topic they want to talk about. Still, though, if you’d have told me the Lakers would be winning 40% of their games through the first quarter of the season, I’d take it. Especially with the profile they’re showing.
Back to this matchup, the Knicks are an intriguing team in their own right, a .500 squad through 26 games. If you saw that coming before the year started, please send me tonight’s winning lottery numbers too.
New York is being carried by their 3rd year phenom of a big man, Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is scoring almost at will, averaging 25.5 points a game and seemingly getting any amount of buckets his team needs in order to keep them in games. Living up to his “unicorn” moniker, 135 of his 199 made field goals have either been in the paint (94) or behind the arc (41), and he’s hitting 38.3% of his nearly 5 attempts from deep a game. He’s also flashing an advanced handle for a player his size, using the threat of his jumper to beat players off the dribble and get into position to hit shots all over the floor.
When you have a player of this offensive quality, the game simply becomes easier for everyone else. He can be the hub of your offense and generate good looks for teammates simply by being on the court. He has enough gravity to draw extra attention just spotting up, but involve him in screen actions — either on or off the ball — and you can see how defenses scramble to ensure he’s covered effectively, opening up teammates in ways that allow them space to operate and score more efficiently.
I mean, look at this roster. The Knicks are exactly middle of the pack offensively (15th out of 30), and while you have to credit the other players for making shots, I’d toss most of this credit Porzingis’ way (the Knicks have an Offensive Rating of 108.0 when he’s on the floor, it dips to 100.9 when he’s out of the game).
Tonight, then, finding ways to effectively guard this guy is paramount to getting a win. Larry Nance is going to have his hands full to start, but I’d imagine Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, and even Brandon Ingram will get some chances. They must be active and engaged off the ball, navigate screens well, stay in front of him in isolation, and contest shots high. If they do these things, they can live with the results. After all, sometimes the offense is just too good. Tip your cap and move on.
Moving on is important, too, since you cannot just focus everything you have on Porzingis and expect to get away with it.
After a slow start, Tim Hardaway Jr. has found his stride as the team’s secondary scorer. Averaging nearly 18 points a game, he can get buckets in a variety of ways. He can hit the mid-range shot well and finds ways to score well enough at the rim and behind the arc to keep defenses honest. Enes Kanter, meanwhile, is a walking double-double and a killer on the offensive backboards (nearly 4 a game).
This means the Lakers veterans in the starting lineup will need to be on their games tonight. KCP will need to lock and trail against THJ, finding ways to disrupt those mid-range jumpers when working off screens. Lopez will need to box out effectively, but also find ways to be effective offensively in P&R situations by hitting his jumper when popping and finding creases on rolls to the interior to open up his floater game.
(UPDATE: Oops. Tim Hardaway Jr. will not play tonight. This should, in theory, make the Lakers jobs easier overall. THJ is one of the team’s better players and the Knicks have not gotten a lot of quality production from their wings behind him. That said, expect Doug McDermott and Lance Thomas to take on the minutes load at SF and, potentially, for more three guard lineups where Jarrett Jack, rookie Frank Ntilikina, and Courtney Lee to find time together. This lineup could especially work against the Lakers all-bench unit which finds Hart/Brewer on the wings with Jordan Clarkson running the point. We’ll see, though. Now back to your regularly scheduled reading.)
Offensively, the Lakers should be able to do damage against the Knicks 15th ranked defense — as long as they’re smart about it and target the right spots/lineups. When Kanter is in the game, he should be attacked in the P&R mercilessly, making him slide his feet and play in space. If Kanter is in the game when Clarkson and Randle are paired, I’d love for this to be the go-to action to see if JC can replicate some of the magic he brought to the 4th quarter win vs. the Hornets.
Lastly, this is a game where the 3 point shot will be available to the Lakers if they want it. The Knicks allow the most 3-point FGA’s a game and if the Lakers — and I’m really looking at Lopez here — can hit this shot effectively they can find a needed boost to their offense overall.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet and ESPN.