Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant guards New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony during the first half of their NBA basketball game in Los Angeles

Lakers earn fifth straight victory with Christmas Day win over Knicks

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers beat the Knicks 100-94 on Christmas Day to earn their fifth straight victory, one that came in an intense and competitive game that came down to the final few possessions.

Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony each finished with 34 points, J.R. Smith had 25 off the bench for New York, while Metta World Peace chipped in 20 for L.A., along with some stellar physical defense on Anthony in the game’s first half.

1ST QUARTER: LAKERS 25, KNICKS 23

Darius Morris started again for the Lakers alongside Steve Nash in the backcourt, with Mike D’Antoni saying before the game that he didn’t want to continually change his lineups, especially while riding a four-game win streak. He also started off with the defensive assignment on Carmelo Anthony, but with Anthony having a significant size (and skill) advantage on Morris, he scored easily over him on jumpers the first two possessions.

D’Antoni had enough of that nonsense after a little over four minutes, when he sent in Metta World Peace for Morris to check Anthony instead.

Carmelo finished just 2-of-7 from the field for five points, while playing all 12 minutes. The Knicks got a nice boost from Kurt Thomas, who led the team with six points by making all three of his jumpers after good ball movement found him for essentially wide open looks.

On the Lakers side, it was nice to see Nash initiating the offense on virtually every possession, and he ended up with four points and four assists in 10 minutes.

Highlights for L.A. included Pau Gasol finding Dwight Howard for an alley-oop slam, and World Peace finding Kobe Bryant on a backdoor cut for an acrobatic flying reverse layup.

Bryant finished the period with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting, and drove to the basket for an and-1 after holding for the team’s final shot of the period for a good 18 seconds, dribbling the clock down on the wing for one of the longest isolation sets you’ll ever see.

2ND QUARTER: LAKERS 51, KNICKS 49

The intensity picked up considerably in the second period, and each team had a breakout offensive performance from one of its reserves.

J.R. Smith had 10 points in the period, on 4-of-6 shooting, hitting an impressive array of jumpers in the process.

But World Peace was absolutely dominant for the Lakers, scoring 16 second-quarter points on just four shots, including hitting all three of his attempts from three-point distance. World Peace also made life miserable for Anthony, who was 2-of-4 from the field in seven minutes, and suffered some bumps and bruises along the way during those one-on-one battles.

The Lakers offense looks to be much improved in terms of ball movement, and players moving to their spots with high activity and a sense of purpose. Nash and Bryant had one such sequence that exemplified this, where Bryant received the ball in down low, kicked it back out to Nash, who allowed Bryant to re-post before dumping it back in, which resulted in a bucket inside.

Lakers not named World Peace are shooting 1-of-10 from three-point distance, with Pau Gasol being the lone made basket from beyond the arc on a somewhat silly three first-half long range attempts.

3RD QUARTER: KNICKS 78, LAKERS 77

Now things are getting interesting.

Metta World Peace started the second half in place of Darius Morris, presumably to continue the stellar defensive job he did on Anthony. But Anthony had other ideas.

Carmelo was electric in the period, switching his strategy of trying to score inside on World Peace in favor of hitting his patented jumper. He hit his first three for 7 quick points in the third quarter’s first two minutes, and that sparked a 12-2 New York run to open up an eight-point Knicks lead at 61-53.

Anthony continued to do damage to the tune of 17 points in the period, to give him 27 for the game through three.

Kobe Bryant got going in the second half of the period, helping to cut into the Knicks lead with 11 points of his own, including an and-1 bucket with the clock winding down to end the third.

4TH QUARTER: LAKERS 100, KNICKS 94

The Knicks offense that was so red-hot in the third began to stall in the final period, and the Lakers ball movement, led by the exceptional play of Nash, was the difference.

Tyson Chandler and Metta World peace fouled out on consecutive possessions, on equally questionable calls with a little over two minutes to play.

Pau Gasol was relatively quiet with 13 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, but made two huge plays down the stretch that helped seal it — the first coming on an aggressive post-up attack while Anthony was defending which got him to the free throw line, and the final coming with the Lakers clinging to a 97-94 lead.

With 12 seconds to play, Nash found Gasol streaking down the center of the lane for the powerful slam, which blew the roof off the Staples Center and cemented the Lakers big win over a very good New York Knicks squad.

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for tip off against the Detroit Pistons in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.

Corey Brewer: “James (Harden) is going to play defense this year”

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walks across the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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James Harden‘s defense is not as bad as its reputation.

Well, at least it wasn’t two seasons ago — his near MVP season he was in good enough shape that he could put in a respectable effort on that end and still handle his massive offensive load. There were still some mental lapses, but his focus was better and his improvement lifted the team defense. Last season, he regressed back to youtube “highlight” defense Harden — his conditioning was not where it needed to be, he didn’t expend as much effort on that end, and it showed.

Harden got a massive contract extension this summer, and Dwight Howard is Atlanta’s problem — now Harden has to lead the Rockets. By example. Corey Brewer told ESPN you’re going to see that on defense.

“I think this year he’s going to play better defense, We’re going to let the past be in the past. It’s the future of the Rockets, man. James is going to play defense this year.”

We’re all Missourians on this one: Show me.

Remember that the Rockets will be out and running — Mike D’Antoni is the coach now, and Daryl Morey is going to get the up tempo ball he wants (which Kevin McHale had them doing, but Harden didn’t like him so…). D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix played better defense than their reputation — points per possession they were middle of the pack — but that has never been his focus.

Will Harden be able to run like he needs to on offense and still defend at a reasonable level?

If he can, it’s a big step toward the Rockets being a dangerous team in the West because if he does it others will follow. Otherwise, every Rockets game will be a shootout, which is entertaining but not going to get a team deep into the playoffs.