Another great NBA rivalry goes down tonight, folks, when the Los Angeles Lakers visit the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The only difference this time around is that Los Angeles is the underdog, with the Lakers struggling at 9-13 compared to the 16-5 Knicks.
These two teams last faced each other on February 10, when New York City was caught up in Linsanity. In nothing short of a miraculous performance, since the Knicks were without both Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony and New York won 92-85 thanks to 38 points from upstart point guard Jeremy Lin.
This time, Lin is no longer a Knick, and Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun game has been replaced with Mike Woodson's slow-paced, defensive isolation game. But D'Antoni's game will still be present, as he now coaches the Lakers.
All past games aside, be it the Linsanity game or Kobe Bryant scoring 61 points against the Knicks in 2009, this game is going to have a lot of fireworks. These history between these two teams goes back nearly 60 years, and they've faced each other in the NBA Finals five times (Lakers lead that contest 3-2).
Throw in that this is D'Antoni's first return to Madison Square Garden since resigning as Knicks coach last season, and the intensity just continues to bubble over.
Time: Thursday, December 13th, 8 p.m. EST
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (9-13) vs. New York Knicks (16-5)
Betting Lines: Los Angeles (+6 1/2) (via bovada.lv)
Injuries: Steve Nash (leg, out), Pau Gasol (knee, out), Steve Blake (abdomen, out); Amar'e Stoudemire (knee, out), Iman Shumpert (knee, out), Marcus Camby (foot, out), J.R. Smith (back, expected to play)
Key Storyline: Can Experienced Lakers Get Back on Track Against Knicks?
When the Knicks beat the Lakers last season, it broke L.A.'s nine-game winning streak against New York. D'Antoni was the Knicks coach, and his run-and-gun game proved to be too much for Kobe Bryant and Co. to handle.
The shoe is on the other foot now, and D'Antoni's Lakers have stumbled out of the starting gate to a 9-13 record. From Steve Nash being injured to Pau Gasol struggling in the fast-paced offense, the team just cannot catch a break.
However, despite its struggles, Los Angeles has something of an advantage tonight.
Of all the Knicks expected to play, D'Antoni has coached seven of them before, be it in New York or in Phoenix. He knows how they work and knows their weaknesses. As a result, he can draw up defensive plans designed to slow down guys like Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton, effectively stopping the Knicks' offensive attack.
At the same time, this approach could backfire. Not only is the Lakers defense weak, but Mike Woodson was an assistant under D'Antoni before taking over as head coach in March.
So now that D'Antoni is coaching the opposing team, they can take what they have learned under Woodson and exhibit just how much better a system it is. And the Knicks have responded well to this system and slowly made D'Antoni's tenure with the team a distant memory.
They have also already beaten the Miami Heat twice, and they have a new confidence and mentality that has the Knicks believing they can beat anybody.
A win against the rival Lakers would be all the more sweet.
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Tyson Chandler
Tyson Chandler was last season's Defensive Player of the Year, and Dwight Howard is upset that he did not win for the fourth time. He'll have the chance to prove why he did deserve the award tonight, as he and Chandler will be battling in the paint for most of the evening.
All award disputes aside, this also happens to be the battle of the game.
Howard has done a good job in his first season as a Laker, averaging 18.4 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Per usual, he has struggled from the free-throw line, shooting just 49 percent.
Chandler has not been as explosive for the Knicks, nor is he as explosive a center as Howard, but he has picked up right where he left off last season. He is averaging 12.4 points and 9.9 boards per game as New York's dominant force in the middle.
Despite how well Chandler has played this season, he faces an uphill battle tonight when he goes up against Howard and the rest of the Lakers, who rank second in rebounding, while the Knicks are just 28th. Howard is also a better athlete, and he will use his 6'11", 265-pound frame to dominate the middle and draw plenty of fouls.
All Chandler can really do is hope that rebounds come his way instead of Howard's and that all of his shots fall. That won't be easy, especially against a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard.
This battle could very well decide the game, and Chandler is an underdog going into it. So long as he stays determined and doesn't back down, he will have a chance.
X-Factor: Antawn Jamison
If the Lakers want a shot at winning this game, they cannot rely solely on Kobe Bryant and/or Dwight Howard to carry them. Everyone must be involved, particularly a natural scorer in Jamison.
The former Tar Heel is now 36 years old, and is averaging eight points and 4.6 rebounds per game for the season.
Jamison saw a stretch of good games shortly after Gasol's knees flared up, notably one in which he scored 33 points and pulled down 12 rebounds against the Denver Nuggets on November 30. Since then, however, his fortunes have taken a nasty turn.
Over his past five games, Jamison is averaging 10.2 points and shooting just 39 percent from the field. He is making a respectable 35 percent of his threes, but he is not the scoring forward that Mike D'Antoni needs him to be.
Against New York, Jamison simply must find his shot. The Lakers need him to have a good game if they want a chance at coming away with a victory; he is of no use to them if he is not scoring points. Against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers on December 11, he scored just nine points on 3-of-10 shooting in a Lakers loss.
He won't have an easy time scoring against the Knicks' tough defense, but Jamison has been in the league so long for a reason. He has a natural scoring touch and a good eye for making his shots. So long as he can capitalize on his opportunities, Los Angeles will have a chance.
If he goes cold again, however, the offense will become one-sided, and the Lakers' losing streak will reach four games as a result.
This game is going to be close. The Knicks have had trouble slowing down Kobe Bryant in the past, and it's going to be even harder this time since he has Dwight Howard as a go-to guy.
Just the same, as they recently showed against the Brooklyn Nets, the Knicks have a knack for making the important shots. This will help them against the Lakers, who should fall just short despite a respectable effort on both sides of the court.
Who will win?
Expect Bryant and Howard to lead the way, but Jamison will likely go cold once again, and the absence of point man Steve Nash surely won't help.
That isn't to say that the Lakers won't have a shot from start to finish. In fact, I expect them to have a significant lead for at least a few minutes tonight. Unfortunately, it will not last.
The clutch scoring of J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd will help the Knicks close any gap, and Carmelo Anthony should take over in the fourth quarter. He won't score 40-plus points again, but he will score enough to help the Knicks, not to mention remind Bryant that he's hot on his tail in the race for the scoring title.
The Knicks will win this hard-fought battle, and the Lakers will once again leave wondering how to play without Nash.
New York Knicks 99, Los Angeles Lakers 95