The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers came into the 2012-13 season with very big expectations. The Lakers just made some major moves bringing in superstars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. The Knicks made smaller moves, but still substantial bringing in the likes of Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby and Ronnie Brewer. The Lakers looked like the most dominant starting five in history (Nash, Howard, Kobe, Gasol and Artest) and the Knicks looked like they could be the deepest team in the league. If the expectations happened like everyone thought they would then this would be one of the biggest games in the year. Unfortunately, it just isn't anymore.
The Lakers have had an unprecedented bad start. They are 9-13 which is good for two games out of the last playoff spot. That is right, if the season ended today there would be eleven teams ahead of them in the Western Conference alone. The Lakers are only a game and a half ahead of Sacramento, who I needed to look up to know who was on the team past Tyreke Evans and Jimmer. They look bad on both sides of the court and have allowed over 100 to the opposition in six of their last seven. So far this season they have losses to Cleveland, Sacramento, Orlando, Houston, Indiana and Portland. That is seven losses in the twelve games they have played against teams who are currently not in a playoff spot. When you are a team with this much talent then you are supposed to beat up on those kind of teams, not lose to them.
Then there are the Knicks. This is the surprise team of the NBA so far. The Knicks at times look like the best team in the NBA. They have played the World Champs twice, once without Carmelo Anthony, and beat them both times by twenty points. The Knicks are 9-4 against playoff teams. They are the best team in the Eastern Conference and seem to be a team that when they are playing their game they are unstoppable. They are fifth in the league in points per game and tenth in points per game allowed. This isn't the Mike D'Antoni Knicks which would be up near the top in points per game, but at the bottom of points allowed. Mike Woodson was the best decision the Knicks could have made. They are buying in to the defense and have won with an inside game and good passing.
These teams may have had completely different seasons record wise, but the stories are similar. The Lakers have lost big stars to injury (Pau Gasol and Steve Nash) as have the Knicks (Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert). Both teams have the spotlight on them after a big offseason. They are both working under a fairly new coaching regime. Their crosstown rivals in both cities have become a lot better than what they were used to.
Let's start there. The Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers have both gotten substantially better. The Nets are currently ranked as tied for fourth in the East and the Clippers have the third best record in the West. The difference is the Lakers have allowed the Clips to surpass them, while the Knicks have let the Nets invasion of New York fuel them to get even better. The Lakers and Clippers could become a great rivalry, the Nets and Knicks already is.
That seems to be the problem with this years Lakers, they shrink in the spotlight. The Knicks seem to love it. Their stars who always loved the spotlight (Anthony, JR Smith) are learning that they don't need to "show off" when the lights are on to get noticed. If they play to their ability and as a team, they will get the praise they deserve. Even without their stars, the Knicks can still win big games. As I said before, they went on this run without Stoudemire and Shumpert all season. They have also won games without Anthony and Jason Kidd in the game. No matter the circumstances, this team seems to find a way to win. If any kind of adversity happens in LA, the Lakers find a way to lose.
Another similarity in these teams is their stars are having one of the best seasons of their respective careers. Kobe is averaging 29.2 points per game with 4.8 assists and 5 rebounds. If the season ended today the points would be the third best of his career and his .488 field goal percentage would be his best. Carmelo is enjoying a stat line of 27.7 points per game with 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc. With Anthony's new commitment to defense and passing he has become the ultimate player. If voting happened now, Anthony would probably win the MVP in a landslide, but the fact that the Lakers are playing this bad with Kobe having this kind of season is amazing.
Will tonight's game be good? No doubt about it. This is Mike D'Antoni's return to Madison Square Garden. He wants this game probably more than any other game all season. D'Antoni only wanted to succeed in New York, which he didn't. He is the Laker's coach now, and the fact that the Knicks are doing so much better without him has to be a driving force. He needs to show everyone he can coach at the highest of levels, and it starts tonight. No more excuses of missing players or time needed to implement the system. The Lakers need to start winning and they need to do it now.
As for the Knicks, as long as they can keep it where they are they will be the team to beat in the East. It is a long season and they need to stick together through it all. This is the first time since the 90's that the Knicks have an actual team playing at MSG. Let's keep it that way.