By Ian Parfrey @Ianparfrey
The Knicks (20-8) opened their West Coast road trip with a 100-94 loss at the hands of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. The matchup featured the NBA’s two top scorers, Kobe Bryant (29.7 ppg) and Carmelo Anthony (28.3 ppg). Bryant and Anthony each poured in an efficient 34 points, and it was a close game throughout, but the Lakers used a 16-4 run spanning the 3rd and 4th quarters to erase a 9-point Knick lead, and got clutch baskets from Steve Nash and Pau Gasol in the final two minutes.
The Knicks made one lineup change, with Kurt Thomas starting in place of Ronnie Brewer. Thomas made all three of his shots, and finished with 6 points and 3 rebounds in 13 minutes. Brewer was scoreless off the bench. The first half was tightly contested, as neither team led by more than six, and the Lakers went into halftime holding a 51-49 lead.
The Knicks struck first in the second half, opening on a 12-2 run to take a 61-53 lead. However, the Knicks had trouble closing out quarters all day, and let the Lakers score the last 6 points of the third quarter to get within 78-77.
Los Angeles took the lead for good with 8:23 to go. Ron Artest missed a fast break layup, but got his own rebound and laid it in, while inadvertently elbowing Steve Novak in the face for good measure. The Lakers’ defense forced 5 Knick turnovers in the final period, and the Knicks repeatedly came up empty on the Ray Felton- Tyson Chandler pick and roll, with Dwight Howard tipping several errant passes to teammates. The Knicks remained within striking distance, but couldn’t get enough stops. Howard (14 points, 12 rebounds) made 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch. J.R. Smith’s three pulled the Knicks within 96-94 with a minute left, but after Gasol made 1 of 2 free throws, Smith missed a potential game-tying triple.
A defensive breakdown off of an inbounds play allowed Pau Gasol to drive in for a two-handed dunk that put the game out of reach at 99-94 with 12 seconds left. Jason Kidd then threw away an inbounds pass intended for Anthony.
The Knicks got another stellar performance from Carmelo Anthony, who scored his 34 points on 13-of-23 shooting. J.R. Smith added 25 points off the bench, but Tyson Chandler was held to 6 points and 9 rebounds (and fouled out with 2:22 left). Raymond Felton shot a ghastly 5-of-19, and his erratic play will be a concern for the Knicks going forward. He was neither able to create points for himself, or Chandler, yet continued to chuck long jump shots, and miss wildly on his layup attempts.
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 34 points, Ron Artest added 20 and contributed great energy and physical defense, and Steve Nash had 16 points and 11 assists. A healthy Nash makes a huge difference for the Lakers, as the Knicks found out today. When Kobe has to be the primary playmaker as well as the primary scorer, the Lakers offense becomes stagnant and easy to defend. With Nash in the game, it opens up additional options. Kobe didn’t attempt a shot over the final 2:54, as the Lakers featured Nash in a two-man game with Gasol or Howard. Those plays are especially effective because defenders are reluctant to help off of Kobe (for good reason).
The Knicks run a similar two-pronged attack with Felton and Chandler opening up the floor for Anthony, but only one half of that attack was working today. Should Knick fans be worried about this loss? Not too much, I think. This isn’t the same Laker team that they beat two weeks ago, with Chris Duhon and Antawn Jamison starting in place of Nash and Gasol. The Knicks lost because they allowed the Lakers back in the game late in the third quarter, and didn’t execute well enough to win on either side of the ball down the stretch. It wasn’t because their effort was flat. Their road trip continues with games in Phoenix and Sacramento, and the Knicks should be able to beat both of those teams without too much trouble.