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Knicks talk defense, Lakers play it and win handily

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The talk coming into the season was how Tyson Chandler was going to change the Knicks defense.

He might, eventually. But Mike Brown has brought new energy and physicality to the Lakers defense right now — the Knicks shot 31.7 percent Thursday night (and for the season opponents are shooting only 38 percent against the Lakers).

The result was a 99-82 win for the Lakers over the Knicks at Staples. That means the Lakers are 2-2 after having started the season with a back-to-back-to-back without Andrew Bynum. Finishing .500 is a good result. Denver gets to face a better Lakers team with Bynum on Saturday.

This wasn’t a particularly pretty game. Both teams had their moments of sloppy play, like we have seen everywhere the first week of the season due to the lockout. Plus, you can blame it on both teams having poor point guard play. Or you can blame it on tired legs — the Knicks on back-to-back, Lakers on fourth game in five nights.

The difference was the Lakers attacked the rim and the Knicks settled. For example, to start the game, the Lakers were up 14-0 on points in the paint, they pounded the ball in to Pau Gasol. In the end, the Lakers had 44 points in the paint to the Knicks 26 (and a number of those Knicks points seemed to come in garbage time). Tyson Chandler tries but the Knicks team defense leaves him stranded too much.

The Lakers were up 63-51 and the half, then Kobe Bryant asserted himself in the third quarter to make sure the Lakers did not fade. Kobe had 13 points in the third alone as he abused Renaldo Balkman —including a four-point play in the third quarter where Balkman fouled Kobe 26 feet from the basket. Balkman was on Kobe a lot in this game, which is good for Kobe.

Meanwhile, the Knicks started the fourth quarter 1-8 shooting, the Lakers went on a 17-3 run and that was pretty much the ballgame. The Knicks tried to hang around but never made a serious run.

For the Lakers, it’s two wins in a row after a tough start. Their defense has been their strong suit and it is only going to improve with the return of Bynum. In the Phil Jackson era the Lakers usually went as far as their defense would take them. This is a different team, but if they keep defending like this they will win a lot of games.

For the Knicks, they are still trying to figure it out — and they are frustrated about it enough that Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler took technical fouls. After a hard-fought Christmas day win over Boston the Knicks have lost two straight on their West Coast swing. This was the second night of a back-to-back against a good team, you can just write it off. But the Knicks defense has not looked sharp and when the offense matches — a rating of 94.3 points per 100 possessions in this game — it will be hard for them to win.

No reason to panic, but New York needs to get Stoudemire attacking and not floating on the wing as much (he was 4-of-17 shooting). They need to steady their defensive rotations. They need better point guard play out of Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby. They need Carmelo Anthony to keep being this efficient (27 points on 14 shots). They need more offensive games like this from Tyson Chandler (13 points, 11 rebounds).

Overall, the Knicks look sloppy, like a team that needed a longer training camp to prepare for the season. Like the defensive message has yet to sink in.

The Lakers look like a team that hears their new coach and has made defense a priority.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: “We can use some more defensive players”

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For all the flipping between the triangle and a more modern offense, despite ball stopping by Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks offense is 17th in the NBA for the season. Not good, but the middle of the pack, right around Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis — all playoff teams (or potential ones in Miami’s case).

The reason the Knicks season ends in seven games is their defense — 25th in the NBA. Put the triangle in (and get players who fit the system) or don’t, but that’s not the end of the court where the Knicks need to improve. And while system matters on defense, the fact of the matter the Knicks roster is loaded with poor and/or indifferent individual defenders.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized all this speaking to ESPN’s Ian Begley.

“I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players,” Hornacek said. “[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and [president] Phil [Jackson] and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there.”

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Now comes the time for action.

The Knicks are going to have a Top 10 draft pick (currently sixth) plus max-player money in free agency. Also, they are looking to move Anthony this summer (he has a no-trade clause so he will have to agree to it). All of which is to say they have a chance to reshape this roster into one that will have more of a defensive focus. Or any defensive focus for that matter.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks target more defensive minded free agents this summer, ones who might fit the triangle offense such as Thabo Sefolosha, or to a lesser extent Tony Allen. It’s going to be a fascinating summer in New York.

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