That is not to say the Knicks—without Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire—are better than the Lakers, but the set of circumstances makes this an opportunity for the Knicks to steal a ball game. To see if the Knicks are going to pull off a victory, here are some things to look for:
The First Quarter
A strong first quarter will go a long way toward securing a Knicks victory. Coming off a physical game against the Celtics the night before, with the lack of depth and youth on the roster, the Lakers should probably have less in the tank for this game.
The Knicks cannot afford a start like they had against the Wizards on Wednesday. They need to come out with guns blazing. With a strong first quarter, they will force a fatigued Lakers team to chase the game. If they do not have a strong first quarter, then the Knicks breathe life into a tired Lakers team and become the ones chasing the game.
The Lakers have the least productive bench in the NBA and it is crucial the Knicks take advantage of this. With the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Iman Shumpert has returned to his natural position on the wing. Look for Iman Shumpert to have plenty of chances to attack the basket.
Look for Steve Novak to capitalize on his shooting ability, as there is no one on the Lakers' bench who can make the Knicks pay on the defensive end when they play Novak. If the Knicks are going to win, Shumpert and Novak (with whatever Bibby, Jordan, and Balkman can give you) need to dominate the Lakers' bench to make up for the clear advantage that the Lakers have when comparing the starting lineups.
Dealing with the Lakers' Frontcourt
As much as Kobe's isolation takes away from the Lakers' biggest advantage against most (if not all) teams in the NBA, the Lakers' frontcourt will cause the Knicks the most problems. Without Amar'e and Josh Harrellson, the Knicks only have Jeffries and Chandler to matchup with Bynum and Gasol (when Novak is on either Gasol or Bynum, I suggest women and children avert their eyes).
This obviously means that both Chandler and Jeffries need to stay out of foul trouble. One thing to look for is whether or not the Knicks double Gasol and/or Bynum. If it were me, I'd look to double Bynum, but not Gasol. Pau Gasol's passing ability increases the risk of the Knicks giving up wide open threes or free cutters to the basket. Andrew Bynum, on the other hand, has shown an inability to effectively pass out of the double team. Look for the Knick guarding Metta World Peace/Matt Barnes to double and force Bynum into turnovers and bad shots.
The Lakers' frontcourt's biggest impact is on the offensive glass. Offensive rebounds by Gasol and Bynum often lead to easy score or trips to the foul line. Against a team on the second of a back-to-back and lacking frontcourt depth, the last thing they want is the Lakers crushing them on the offensive glass.
Not only does this mean that Chandler and Jeffries need to put forth a strong effort on the glass, but the Knicks also need to rebound from the small forward position. When Matt Barnes or Metta World Peace is on the floor, they are not a threat from the perimeter (in fact no Lakers not named Troy Murphy are a threat from three). That will allow the Knicks small forward to cheat off of Barnes/World Peace and more effectively crash the boards.
Who Will Win?
The Knicks also need to get out and run. Neither Bynum nor Gasol recover quickly on defense when they have their normal amount of energy, let alone on the second of a back-to-back. On both turnovers and rebounds, the Knicks need to look to push and penetrate. That way they will not have to worry Gasol or Bynum contesting their drives to the hoop. With the lack of explosiveness and size, the Knicks will need all the easy baskets they can get.
Yes, Kobe Bryant leads the NBA in scoring. However, there are two big reasons for this:
1) No Phil Jackson = No Triangle = A ton more Kobe isolation plays (= Gasol being lost in the offense many nights)
2) No Phil Jackson = No monitoring minutes = Kobe playing almost 4.5 minutes more per game (= Kobe being gassed at the end of the year? Just sayin'.)
In fact, Kobe is working harder for his point than he has at any point in his career. He settles for more jumpers than he has in his career (89 percent of field goal attempts are jumpers). So for the Knick guarding Kobe (Shumpert or Fields most likely), my advice is to not go for the pump fake. I will repeat. DO NOT GO FOR THE PUMP FAKE.
Kobe's ability to get to the line shooting all those jump shots may end up becoming the stuff of legend, but at this point, it is his only consistent source of easy points. You take that away and then Kobe is almost exclusively relying on his ability to convert contested jump shots. If he drains a ton of them (which he is wont to do), then you tip your hat because that's the best you are going to do.
Who Guards Jeremy Lin?
Steve Blake looked like he needed to work his way back into playing shape in the win against the Celtics after missing time due to injury. Derek Fisher looked like he needed to work his way back into playing shape after...wait he's just old. With both coming off a game the previous night, Jeremy Lin should look to have a big impact penetrating and creating for himself or his teammates.
The Lakers frontcourt could cause Lin problems; however, the Knicks use of the pick-n-roll to initiate Lin's dribble penetration will take one of those bigs away from the basket. It will be crucial that Jeffries and Chandler finish when Lin feeds them or, at the very least, draw the foul.
The Lakers have struggled with penetrating point guards during Phil Jackson's second stint as head coach and that still is the case for the Lakers under Mike Brown. In fact, the solution for the Lakers appears to have Kobe Bryant guard the point guard.
If that happens, then Fields, Shumpert, Walker, etc. need to take advantage of the match-up against Fisher or Blake. The Knicks also need to continue to run pick-n-roll with Lin and set the picks with gusto. If Kobe wants to check Lin, then the Knicks need to make Kobe pay for it physically.
With the amount of games the Knicks blew to inferior opponents at the beginning of the season, they need to make up for it by stealing some games before the schedule gets brutal. This is that game. The Knicks have a better chance of winning this game than their next game on Saturday at Minnesota. That being said, I'm looking forward to the exploits of the Knicks and the smartest backcourt in the NBA.