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Friday, February 11, 2011
Knicks vs. Lakers: W2W4 with ESPN LA

By Jared Zwerling

I contacted the most dominant duo out in Los Angeles to get their thoughts on tonight's Knicks-Lakers matchup. No, not Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol -- that would be The Kamenetzky Brothers, Andy and Brian, who run ESPN Los Angeles' Land O' Lakers blog. Topics included why the defending champs haven't been playing like the defending champs this season, how the team will respond to the Knicks' updated lineup, the Black Mamba and, yes, even Carmelo Anthony.

Brian wrote in an e-mail to me, "Feel free to edit and tweak as you see fit." But the stuff was too good to cut. For my thoughts on the matchup from the Knicks' perspective, click here.

Since word surfaced that the Lakers and Nuggets were possibly discussing a trade between Andrew Bynum and Carmelo Anthony, how realistic is it? Has there been any reaction from the players and has Bynum said anything specifically about it?
I don't doubt conversations have taken place, or that the Lakers have kicked the tires on: a) moving Andrew Bynum generally; or b) taking on Carmelo Anthony, which would be a substantial extension from a financial standpoint. It's a deal making some sense from LA's standpoint, especially for those worried, as I am, that Bynum will never meet his considerable potential because he'll never be healthy enough. That opinion, however, isn't universal in the organization.

For the Lakers, the possibility of trading Bynum is also a referendum on the potential of this year's team. It seems unlikely the Lakers would be better in the short term in a straight swap -- Bynum for Anthony. They’d be down to one legit center and one legit power forward on the roster (no disrespect intended towards Joe Smith, Derrick Caracter, or Theo Ratliff). Incredible as the potential to score would be, asking the Lakers to so drastically change the composition of this team, one that has played together for a while and still win a title -- that seems like a tall order. Put it all together and the deal seems like a longshot to me.

In terms of player response, Kobe called Bynum a "big boy" who can handle this sort of thing -- in part, ironically, because a few years ago, Bryant put Bynum front and center in about 20 different rumors -- thanks to his "ship his a-- out" cell phone video. Bynum himself says it’s "just another rumor." Nobody is going to address the rumors, and certainly won't comment on Anthony, directly. Is anyone going to say, "It’s a great idea," while Bynum is still actually there? Bynum tends to play well when his name is at the center of rumors, so perhaps this all helps the Lakers as they enter a key time in the schedule.

Since Magic Johnson said last week on national TV that the Lakers might need to make a move because they looked complacent, how do you think they’ve responded? As a follow-up to this, recently they weren’t able to beat three of the league’s best teams: the Mavericks, Celtics and Spurs. Where have they been lacking?
Well, they got their "defining" road win against the Celtics last night. Critics will argue it was against a very shorthanded Celtics team, but it was a win nonetheless. The Lakers are now 3-0 to start their seven-game road trip. Both are encouraging signs for the Lakers, who have admittedly been up and down over the course of the season.

As far as what has held them back, accounting at least in part for losses to Indiana, Sacramento and Milwaukee at home, complacency was certainly an issue, particularly early in the year. As much as we'd love to believe players go all in mentally and physically every night, in reality it's tough for teams, like the Lakers, trying to make a fourth-straight Finals and win a third-straight title to get keyed up for every game. It requires a certain mental gymnastics, and the Lakers haven't been able to perform them consistently. It happens to every team, but teams defending titles are particularly vulnerable.

It's a mistake, though, to declare boredom the root of all their problems. The Lakers have also had problems defensively with outside shooting, ball movement and so on. For all their skill on the floor, they still don't have a second player capable of creating his own shot consistently off the wing. That said, it's not surprising to see they've started cranking up the engagement meter over the last three weeks -- despite still losing some games -- and have turned in consecutive great defensive performances, first against Memphis on Tuesday and again Thursday vs. Boston. They'll help themselves on that end of the floor, against the best teams in particular, by exercising much better shot selection and ball movement, and avoiding runs of turnovers.

I suspect they'll look increasingly like the team everyone expects the Lakers to be. The big question now is if they’ve given up too much position in the standings in terms of things like home court advantage. We'll find out in the spring.

Tonight the Lakers will see Amare Stoudemire again who's been playing at a MVP level all season. But this time, the Knicks will have a healthy Danilo Gallinari, an improved Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov in the starting lineup. Do you think any of these new matchups or others will cause problems for the Lakers? Or do they not even matter because the game will come down to the Lakers’ dominance in the paint?
No question Gallinari's presence makes a massive difference for the Lakers, who don't always mind opposing shooters along the perimeter. Clearly they won't be able to totally load up on Stoudemire without getting burned, and the Knicks should find a few more lanes to the basket. It'll be up to the seven footers to alter shots inside. Kobe actually singled out Fields before the teams met at Staples as a guy playing very well, significant because: a) he generally doesn't do that sort of thing; and b) it means Fields is on his radar. Meaning Kobe is likely to pay closer attention to him than he typically would a rookie.

Ironically, having Mozgov in the starting lineup might actually help the Lakers a little -- particularly Bynum who struggles more defensively against smaller, more mobile players able to draw him away from the bucket.

But you're right -- the Lakers still ought to dominate in the paint, both because of advantages presented by Bynum and Gasol, but also the ability of Bryant to work the mid-post and block, because of [Lamar] Odom's flexibility, and so on. In the first matchup, Bynum and Gasol combined for 51 points. Odom chipped in with 13 points and 18 rebounds, and the Lakers scored 50 in the paint. I don’t know if they'll be able to replicate the performances exactly, but if the Lakers stay committed to pounding the Knicks in their halfcourt sets and using their size effectively, New York really doesn't have much with which they can counter.

The good news for Knicks fans is the Lakers, for whatever reason, are prone to stretches where they ignore the post and get perimeter happy. If Amare and Co. can knock down some shots, speed up the game and, more importantly, force turnovers -- as they did early in the first matchup -- the Lakers might grow impatient.

What is Kobe Bryant like this season on the court, off the court and with the media compared to the way he's been in the past?
This year to last? Pretty similar. I haven't seen much change in his demeanor, the way he talks to us or the way in which he communicates with teammates. Typically, whether after practice or games, he will meet us and say generally very little. Sometimes he's serious Kobe, speaking in very low tones almost impossible to pick up over a digital recorder. Other times he's more jovial, which often means dropping f-bombs throughout his answers, knowing full well how much more difficult he's making the lives of those in the scrum -- particularly those using video. But it's all basically from the same script he's employed over the last couple seasons, as his relationship with the media has grown less confrontational.

The big contrast is between Kobe now and versions from earlier in his career, whether as a very young player or a leader of the team following the breakup of the Shaq-Kobe three-peat teams. I spoke earlier this season with Luke Walton, who has been on the team since the start of the '03-'04 season, and he explained how Bryant has evolved as a leader. He's still very intense and demanding, but whereas he used to get out in front and demand guys keep up with him come hell or high water, now he's more collegial. He tries harder to bring guys with him.

Bryant certainly has an impact. Gasol, for example, has played extremely well since Bryant encouraged him publicly and privately to be more aggressive. More black swan than white swan. He's freer with compliments for the rest of the team, and has learned to -- at least somewhat -- temper signs of outward displeasure towards teammates and better pick his spots to drop the hammer.

On the court, he's doing what he's done over the last few years of LA’s success: playing much more from mid-range -- though of late he's been attacking the rack more -- distributing extremely well and generally avoiding the poor shot selection and overwhelming dominance of the ball many have used to criticize him over the course of his career. He's playing very well.

What's your prediction for tonight?
I realize the Lakers are on the wrong side of a back-to-back and following an emotional game last night, but this isn't a game they should lose. No disrespect to the Knicks, but from a matchup standpoint the Lakers ought to take virtually every game these teams would play. If the Lakers stay focused on the interior and take care of the ball, the Knicks will have a very tough time speeding up the game -- and in a halfcourt dominated contest, the Lakers should win.

Plus, Kobe hates losing at the Garden.

I say the perfect trip for L.A. continues. Lakers by six.

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