Records: Lakers 29-7, Knicks 10-26
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.9 (4th), Knicks 104.9 (26th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.8 (4th), Knicks 111.9 (23rd-Tied)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Knicks: Frank Ntilikina, RJ Barrett, Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (questionable); Knicks: Elfrid Payton (questionable), Dennis Smith Jr. (questionable)
The Lakers coming in: The Lakers have won 5 straight games. This is good! They’ve also had issues maintaining leads and have seen their bench production suffer as a couple of key members of that group haven’t performed well of late (more on this in a separate post). This is not as good.
Depending on what hat you wear, the Lakers are either a really good team, able to win games even when they’re flawed and this shows a baseline of strength and quality that should not be overlooked OR the Lakers are a flawed team that will need to find ways to sure up these weaknesses or their goals of winning a title will likely be submarined by players who should not play as much as they do (if they should play at all).
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but we’re getting to the point in the season where the latter becomes more a concern by the day. It should not surprise, then, that in the last week there have been reports about the Lakers interest in Darren Collison as well as their “listening” to offers on forward Kyle Kuzma. One of these problems is bigger than the other — and not by a small margin. That said, the Lakers seem to understand they need to find ways to improve their team. With the trade deadline coming in about a month, the clock is ticking.
Ultimately, fans should feel really good overall about where this team is. They’re 22 games over .500 and possess a top-5 offense and defense. They have two of the best 5 players in the league, with candidates at or near the top of both the MVP and DPOY races. If building a team and looking to contend in the playoffs, top end talent is always the first building block you want. The Lakers have that and it’s showing up in the win column.
Be grateful, ya’ll. Things could be so much worse. Just look at the previous 6 years…
The Knicks coming in: I could give you some sort of update on the Knicks, here — how they’ve lost two straight games, but had won 3 straight before that; how they fired head coach David Fizdale and replaced him with Mike Miller (not that Mike Miller); how they just hung 130+ points on the Clippers (but lost) — but instead I’m going to point you to this wonderfully written piece by Dan Devine at The Ringer for you to get a sense of where the Knicks are right now and how they’ve been playing of late.
Dan does a much better and more thorough job of explaining this team than I could and he’s a friend of the site. So, go read Dan and then come back here and finish my preview.
Keys to the game: As Devine noted in his writeup, the Knicks have not been garbage lately. They’re playing better on both sides of the ball, finally finding some semblance of plan and purpose for attacking foes and finding success in doing so. The Lakers, then, would be smart to respect this team and make sure they come out focused.
In terms of individual matchups, I’ll be watching two. First is Marcus Morris vs. LeBron. Both the Morris twins love to compete against Bron and Marcus, the former Celtic, seems to take this matchup personally. Morris is also having one of his best years as a pro, taking advantage of his green light to score well — particularly from beyond the arc.1Morris is shooting 46.9% on nearly 6 attempts a game! LeBron, then, will need to be attentive defensively, particularly since Morris will be as aggressive as a shooter.
The other matchup I’m looking forward to is Julius Randle vs. everybody. For those who have followed me for some time know, Randle is my guy. My affinity for left handers aside, Randle’s unique combination of quickness and power to go along with his penchant for scoring the ball from all kinds of awkward angles was always something I just enjoyed. This season he’s also flashing an improved 3-point shot (and willingness to shoot it, too), so his game is diversified and worth paying attention to. I’d suspect Anthony Davis will get a fair amount of minutes on Randle, but I’m guessing we might see possessions where it’s LeBron, Dwight, or even JaVale on him too.
On the other end of the floor, the Knicks are not a good defensive team and I expect the Lakers to find ways to attack them efficiently. The Knicks also foul shooters a lot, leading to 26 FT attempts a game by opponents (29th in the league). The Lakers have not been a high volume FT attempt team this year, but AD and LeBron can parade to the line when they’re assertive going to the rim in both the half court and transition. If the Lakers can get to the line, hit their FT’s, and if just one or two of their 3-point shooters hit shots, this game can get out of hand and in a hurry.
Lastly, I really would like to see Kyle Kuzma get back on track and, honestly, I think that’s mostly going to be about him playing with better energy and focus on both ends of the floor. It can’t be easy being in trade rumors…again. It also can’t be easy trying to find a way to grow your game while having fewer minutes and opportunities. That said, if Kuzma is going to be a foundational piece for this team he’s going to need to play through some of this stuff, trust his game, and produce. Tonight, against a talented front court group with the Knicks, would be a nice place to start.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.
*All stats via stats.nba.com