Momentum is riding high for the Los Angeles Lakers following a blowout victory against the Brooklyn Nets, but that momentum is set to be rivaled by the New York Knicks, who like L.A., possesses an elite defense.
Entering the game on Monday night, the Lakers’ injury report continues to pile up. Already without LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Jared Dudley, the Lakers could also be without Kyle Kuzma (calf), Wesley Matthews (Achilles) and Marc Gasol (hamstring), who are all questionable.
But it looks like the already-congested list is set to enlarge, as Alfonzo McKinnie has been ruled out due to health and safety protocols and Dennis Schroder is probable after landing hard on his back against the Nets.
The Knicks, on the other hand, are steering mostly clear of injuries. Mitchell Robinson underwent surgery on his foot in late March and is out, and big man John Henson is also listed as out.
Short-handed has been a prevalent theme to describe the Lakers thus far, but at this point, they’re running out of hands. Making matters worse than it already is is the fact that New York boasts the best defense in the league in terms of points allowed per game (104.4). They don’t necessarily generate steals and blocks to do so, either.
Much of New York’s success comes with a huge amount of versatility and trust. They know when a switch is necessary, who to switch on, when to bring the weakside help defense, who to rotate to when the ball is swinging around and many other nuances that box scores don’t tally. It’s why they are in contention for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Lakers offense has oscillated in terms of points per game scored, and with the injury report as colossal as it is, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how L.A. will perform. In the last three games, L.A. has averaged 113.3 points a contest, tied for 16th in the league; it’s an improvement of their season average of 110.2 points, placing 23rd in the league.
If Schroder is unable to go, a sizeable chunk of the ball-handling duties will move onto Talen Horton-Tucker, who is coming off the heels of an impressive 14-point, 11-assist outing against Brooklyn. His ability to attack the paint could open up the Knicks’ defense and free some room for either Andre Drummond or Montrezl Harrell to score in the paint or for shooters like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ben McLemore to convert on 3-pointers.
Speaking of Drummond, the big man dropped 20 points and 11 rebounds against the Nets in his best game so far in a Lakers’ uniform, manifesting the ability to hoard rebounds in bunches and make defenses pay for not having the size to guard him.
With Robinson out, the Knicks rotate between Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson at center. Noel is undersized to guard Drummond, but he does average 2.1 blocks a game, one of the premier rates in the league.
Though the Lakers’ offense has fluctuated with consistency, their defense has remained stalwart no matter what. Just behind the Knicks in points per game allowed is L.A., allowing 105.8 a game. That could fall in Los Angeles’ favor as New York averages 105.3 points a game, the 28th best rate.
The primary benefactor for the Knicks is Julius Randle, a player L.A. is extremely familiar with. The bruising power forward is more of a point forward. Averaging 22.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists a game while shooting 46% from the field, 40% from 3-point territory and 80% at the free-throw line, Randle dictates the pace of the game unlike many players of his size.
Slowing down Randle’s production isn’t an easy task because there aren’t many weak spots to his game. He can drive to the rim, pull up from deep or find open teammates; his development has been remarkable. But if the Lakers can force Randle to use the ball with his right hand as much as possible, they may have a chance since he’s extremely reliant on his left to be successful.
Another Knick who has made considerable noise this season is RJ Barrett. Last season didn’t bear too much fruit for the 20-year-old guard, but he’s shown an improved ability to handle the ball, knock down jumpers and increase the defensive intensity. He’s been Randle’s Robin for New York, and the Lakers must ensure their guards freeze his production.
The Lakers haven’t had much go their way this season, but their defense could be their calling card against a stingy Knicks squad that makes games slugfests.
Lakers (33-20) vs. Knicks (27-27)
4:30 p.m. PT, April 12, 2021
Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York
TV: Spectrum Sportsnet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers starting lineup:
PG: Dennis Schroder
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Talen Horton-Tucker
PF: Markieff Morris
C: Andre Drummond
Key Reserves: Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, Ben McLemore, Devontae Cacok
Projected Knicks starting lineup:
PG: Elfrid Payton
SG: RJ Barrett
SF: Reggie Bullock
PF: Julius Randle
C: Nerlens Noel
Key Reserves: Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, Obi Toppin
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