The Mike D'Antoni-led Los Angeles Lakers first faced the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 13, and the results were anything but favorable. Without Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, the Lakers lost 116-107 against a tough New York defense. At the time, it marked their fourth straight loss.
This time, the circumstances are different. Nash and Gasol are both back in the lineup after recovering from injuries, and the Lakers have won four straight following their loss in New York. The team can now flourish in the run-and-gun game the way it should with Nash running the point, and a Christmas Day win against the Knicks would be a fine gift for the entire team.
Of course, it's not going to be easy. New York has performed outstandingly in Mike Woodson's slowed down defensive system, going 20-7 and ranking second in the Eastern Conference, just barely behind the defending champion Miami Heat.
D'Antoni is going to want to defeat the team he coached for three and a half seasons before abruptly resigning last year, and the Knicks will likewise want to show how much better off they are without his fast-paced game. After D'Antoni's resignation last season, the Knicks proceeded to go 18-6 under Woodson.
A grudge match for the ages will thus definitely be on tap this Christmas Day, as a battle of East vs. West goes down. The Knicks will march into the Staples Center looking to sweep the season series against the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant and his men may have other ideas.
Time: Tuesday, December 25th, 3 p.m. EST
Records: New York Knicks (20-7) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (13-14)
Betting Lines: New York (+4), Los Angeles (-4), via Bovada
Injuries: Amar'e Stoudemire (knee, out), Iman Shumpert (knee, out), Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Marcus Camby (foot, expected to play), Steve Blake (abdomen, out)
Key Storyline: Can Lakers Beat Knicks and Extend Streak with Nash and Gasol Back in Lineup?
Despite a second-half surge, the Lakers lost against the Knicks earlier this month. However, it was without both Steve Nash and Pau Gasol in the lineup. Los Angeles instead relied on a trio of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace to carry the team.
Bryant finished the night with 31 points and 10 rebounds, while Howard chipped in 20 points of his own and World Peace, 23.
The circumstances in this game are far different. Whereas the Lakers were seeking to avoid a fourth straight loss last time, they are now seeking a fifth straight win.
Los Angeles now has the upper hand in that Nash and Gasol are both healthy, which means that the run-and-gun offense can be played to its fullest potential.
The Knicks have struggled against teams that like to run this year, namely the Houston Rockets, and that could pose a problem with a fully-stocked Lakers team. Of course, the Lakers are much older than Houston, but the Knicks must still be wary of the fast-paced game.
Likewise, Los Angeles must take advantage of New York's slow approach. The team clearly is not at its best when forced to run, so Nash must use his superb court vision to run the pick-and-roll while also creating offense for his equally superb teammates.
In a matchup of offense vs. defense, this game is a definite Christmas must-see.
Key Matchup: Tyson Chandler vs. Dwight Howard
With Nash back in the lineup, the stage is set for Dwight Howard to star in D'Antoni's system. The pick-and-roll will be at 100 percent, which should make for some thunderous dunks and key baskets in the paint.
Of course, on Christmas Day, this means that Howard will have to best the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler.
Howard is the better center on paper. He is averaging 17.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game and is a legitimate threat on both sides of the court. Chandler, though talented, is averaging just 12.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and just under a block per game.
However, Chandler was able to best Howard defensively when the Knicks first took on the Lakers this season. While Howard had 20 points and seven rebounds, Chandler was able to score 23 and pull down 10.
This time around, Howard has no excuse to not best Chandler in the paint. He has a top point guard getting him the ball and is an overall better athlete than his 7'1" opponent.
That isn't at all going to stop the Knicks' center. The game is on national television, the team has been playing some fine basketball all season long, and it is a rivalry game. Regardless of how well Howard is performing early on, he is not going to put in any less of an effort just because he is being beaten.
For all we know, the two will battle to a complete stalemate. Just the same, even though the Lakers are the best rebounding team in the league compared to the 28th-ranked Knicks, it is imperative that both centers fight for the upper hand.
Whoever wins this battle will be on the team that wins the game, which is sure to be close.
X-Factor: Pau Gasol
Ever since Mike D'Antoni took over as head coach, Pau Gasol has been the weakest link in the Lakers' offense. Instead of getting in the low-post and under the basket where he performs best, he has instead been used as a jump-shooter/perimeter player. This has sparked criticism from many, namely former Lakers great Magic Johnson and even Gasol himself.
This season has been the absolute worst of Gasol's career. He is averaging 8.9 rebounds but also a career-low 12.3 points and is shooting a career-worst 41 percent from the field.
Gasol simply needs to get out of his funk against the Knicks. The Lakers need his defense against Carmelo Anthony, whose abilities to create mismatches on defense and score with a hand in his face rank among the best in the NBA. Gasol must also use his 7'0", 250-pound frame to get past Anthony's defense, which could be easier said than done.
Long story short, how Gasol performs in this game could very well determine his future with the Lakers. He has already been given an ultimatum by team management to either adjust to D'Antoni's system or be traded, and choking on national television on Christmas Day in a highly-anticipated rivalry game will only give them more reason to seek offers for him.
Gasol thus must fully buy into D'Antoni's offense for this one game, as unhappy as he is with it. His ability to stretch the floor is one of the keys to Los Angeles beating New York, and he won't sink his shots if he isn't focused on the victory.
If, however, he starts heating up early in the game, then the Lakers' chances of winning will ultimately increase, and victory will be all but a certainty—if he can keep it up throughout the game.
This game is going to be a dogfight from start to finish, and it's going to be close. I'm talking potential-overtime close.
As close as it will be, the Lakers will just miss out on a Christmas victory.
The presence of Nash in the lineup will definitely help the Lakers, but his weak defense will not help him against the Knicks' isolation game. On the opposite side of the coin, his playmaking ability and accurate shooting will keep the Lakers in the game throughout the day.
Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler will, as previously mentioned, battle to a stalemate, with both men finishing with similar stat lines.
In terms of scoring, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony will go toe-to-toe, as the two-top scorers in the league should. In the end, Bryant's tendency to get a bit too trigger happy despite wide-open teammates will sink the Lakers down the stretch, whereas Anthony will lead the Knicks' balanced attack and be willing to let others get involved.
Who will win?
Pau Gasol will have a respectable game. Not great, but respectable. He'll pull down some key rebounds and make some important shots and will definitely be a reason why the game is so close throughout. Unfortunately, his inability to consistently play the run-and-gun game will hinder him, and the final score will reflect accordingly.
The Lakers will do all they can to stay in the game, but the Knicks are just too good this season. As a result, there will be some extra Christmas cheer on the East Coast
New York Knicks 115, Los Angeles Lakers 109...in overtime