Things to watch in the Lakers-Knicks matchup
1. How do the Lakers absorb Matt Barnes' absence? With the forward expected to be out for several weeks because of a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, the Lakers lose a feisty, energetic and highly efficient bench player who averaged 7.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 21.1 minutes per game this season. The Lakers certainly have a number of different combinations to absorb his absences, but it will be interesting to see which one works best.
The Times' Mike Bresnahan highlights Kobe Bryant's belief that he will log more minutes at small forward, Coach Phil Jackson says Luke Walton will get more playing time, and the Lakers recently recalled Devin Ebanks from the Bakersfield Jam of the Development League. But there are some other possibilities. While Bryant plays more at small forward, Shannon Brown could assume more minutes at shooting guard. Or perhaps Ron Artest would stay deeper into the rotation at his original starting spot at the 3.
More time for Bryant at small forward would likely result in an uptick in the 33.1 minutes he's averaged this season, something Bryant expressed little worry about to reporters. But with his continual efforts in minimizing pain in his right knee, the Lakers further test their need for Bryant having an elevated role at the possible risk of injuries later in the season. More playing time for Brown could increase his confidence in his shooting stroke, which has experienced a deep slide from November, December and January in field-goal percentage both from the field (48%, 40.2% and 36.4%) and from three-point range (45.6%, 39.5% and 20%), despite averaging nearly 18 minutes per game the entire season.
Giving Artest an increased role could spark his confidence and lead to performances such as the one he offered in the Lakers' 99-95 victory Wednesday over the Phoenix Suns. Or it could lead to continual spurts of discomfort in the triangle and defensive inconsistency. It's surely an option Jackson would consider, but one that would be based on how Artest handles the opportunity. The same applies to Walton, whose understanding of the triangle helps the Lakers' fluidity but his limited minutes thus far make it unclear what impact, for better or worse, he'd have on the team. Ebanks came off the bench with Bakersfield averaging 14.6 points at a 50% clip, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals, meaning an increased role could spark even more confidence. Or it could provide a huge reminder of the difference between the NBA and the D League.
There are no definitive answers, but the Lakers may at least provide some glimpses of what the near future might hold against New York.
2. How will the Lakers counter the Knicks' offense? New York (21-14) has three consecutive wins, including one against San Antonio, and have won 11 road games, thanks to a highly efficient offense you'd expect from Coach Mike D'Antoni. The team managed to string a league-leading 108.1 points per game thanks to its quickness (second in the NBA with 99.2 possessions a game) and efficiency (a third-ranked 108.8 points per 100 possessions). And as The Times' Mark Heisler reminded, the Lakers haven't been strong defensively. It's not so much the points they're allowing, ranking 10th overall in total defense (97.19 points). It's the way the Lakers concede points to other teams. That includes but is not limited to poor shot selection, missed rebounds or turnovers resulting in quick transition buckets, the Lakers not sliding over to help if the team's backcourt gets beaten off the dribble and little to no communication during slides, screen and rolls and run-outs.
The return of Andrew Bynum has certainly bolstered the Lakers' rotation in length and size. Bynum's blocked shots (1.5 per game) and intimidating force in the lane are welcome, but those variables are also indicators the Lakers are forcing him to bail them out of defensive lapses. If the Lakers don't remain more disciplined, it will be a long night as they try to contain speedy point guard Raymond Felton (who had his first triple-double against Phoenix), versatile Landry Fields and power forward Amare Stoudemire.
3. How will the Lakers' front line match up with New York The comment didn't bother him then. It surely doesn't bother him now. There may be some who think the intrigue surrounding Odom and Stoudemire involves the latter's contention that Odom had a "lucky" game in Game 1 of the Lakers-Suns West Finals matchup when Stoudemire was with Phoenix. With Stoudemire averaging 26.3 points on 52.1%, nine rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game and Odom remaining the Lakers' most consistent player, this matchup proves compelling for other reasons.
"Amare Stoudemire is playing basketball and scoring a lot of points in the paint," Odom said. "He's so quick, strong and explosive. His range from the outside, he doesn't get enough credit. He's a great stand-still shooter. You have to make him put the ball on the floor."
With Bynum's admittance that Stoudemire is one of his favorite NBA players and Odom's acknowledgement that his hometown roots still make him a Knicks fan, this matchup no doubt proves more compelling than others. Though the Lakers' plan for guarding Stoudemire with Odom, Bynum and Gasol may have mixed results, there's no doubt that Stoudemire's not known for showing much effort defensively.
The Knicks' defensive problems in limiting the opposing team's front line go beyond Stoudemire. They allowed the Celtics to score 62 points in the paint and the Heat 56 more, and the Lakers are coming off a victory against New Orleans in which Bynum, Odom and Gasol combined for 55 points. But that doesn't mean they'll be a punching bag. Besides the possibility New York could go small, the Knicks still play pretty physical and lead the league in blocked shots (6.74), showing that the Lakers will get opportunities but they will come with bruising effects.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Knicks power forward Amare Stoudemire celebrates after a basket during a 125-119 victory over Golden State on Friday. Credit: Kyle Terada / US Presswire