The Lakers (25-25), fresh off a win at Boston despite the absence of both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are in New York (32-17) to take on the NBA’s hottest team, a Knicks squad that has won nine straight games. The game tips off at 5:30 p.m. PT on ABC.
Below are three things to know ahead of the matchup:
FRONT LINE INJURIES
The Lakers managed to beat a fully healthy Celtics team that had lost only twice in Boston despite the aforementioned LeBron and AD, but they also lost their best player of that first half, Jarred Vanderbilt, to a foot injury just before halftime. Vando totaled 10 points with a pair of 3-pointers, seven boards, three steals and two assists in his 16 minutes, for a game-best +17, before hurting his foot.
Vanderbilt limped back to the locker room to undergo tests, and while the initial X-Ray was negative, his status moving forward is in doubt until further examination.
What’s even more frustrating for Vanderbilt and the Lakers is that he’d really found his game after missing the first month and change of the season due to left heel bursitis. Even when he returned, on Dec. 2, he wasn’t fully healthy, and he averaged just 2.6 points, 4.1 boards and 0.7 steals in 17.8 minutes. Then in January, his production tacked up, to the point where he scored in double figures in five of the last seven games, and he totaled 15 steals in the final seven games of the month. Vanderbilt also figured out how to play when teams didn’t respect him as a shooter in the corner, picking the right times to cut to the basket on dives that typically resulted in layups, dunks or free throws.
Vanderbilt could have been an ideal candidate to slide into the starting lineup, and provide defensive protection on the perimeter for the guards, and an energy boost for the bigs, but we’ll have to wait and see when he’s able to return.
Meanwhile, Darvin Ham noted prior to Thursday’s game that both LeBron and AD had been carrying injuries that caused them to miss the Boston contest. The hope is that both are able to return to the court, and rejoin the group that pulled off the impressive victory on Thursday.
“Physically, I’ve been better but I’ve been a lot worse, but hoping to be able to go out and contribute tonight, help our team win a ball game,” said LeBron after Saturday morning’s shootaround. “Very proud of our efforts in Boston. Guys stepped up and played exceptional basketball. It was beautiful to see.”
So, how did they do it? The short answer: the Lakers played both harder, and more connected, than the Celtics.
Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell provided the skill on the perimeter, with Reaves drilling seven 3’s towards his season-high 32 points, and Russell dropping 14 dimes, on top of four of his own 3’s. Vanderbilt was joined by Jaxson Hayes on the energy front, with the previously-out-of-the-rotation big man scoring a season-high 16 points plus 10 boards and three steals. Rui Hachimura scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, and added eight rebounds, while Max Christie drove aggressively to the hoop, adding nine points in his 23 minutes.
As a team, the Lakers committed only seven turnovers, zero in the fourth quarter, while forcing 15 Celtics miscues, including 11 direct steals. L.A. attacked the basket and got to the foul line 26times, but committed only eight personal fouls, to Boston’s 19, accounting for a +12 at the foul line. L.A. didn’t shoot particularly well overall, somehow converting only 19 of 58 2-point field goals, but they were red hot from 3, converting 19 of 36.
They’ll need that type of team effort to beat the NBA’s hottest team on Saturday.
Thanks in part to an NBA-best 9-game winning streak, the Knicks look to be in good shape to get to 50 wins for the first time since 2012-13, when Carmelo Anthony averaged 28.7 points per game to lead them to a 54-28 record. This season’s group has a chance to advance further than Melo’s squad, who lost in the second round of the playoffs, thanks in part to an excellent trade that brought them OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa in exchange for Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett.
Anunoby, among the best individual defensive players in the NBA, has also fit in well offensively, shooting 39.1% from three and 51.6% overall towards 15.6 points. He needs the ball less than Barrett, which fits ideally alongside higher usage players like Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, and that’s helped New York’s offensive flow. Anunoby has missed the last three games with an elbow injury, however, and is listed as “questionable” to face the Lakers.
Randle, meanwhile, recently suffered a right shoulder injury, but Achiuwa has filled in admirably, posting a 12-point, 16-board double-double in Thursday’s win over Indiana, and and 18-point, 5-board, 2-block effort in Tuesday’s win over Utah.
Brunson, though, has been the key to it all. The player that many think should be starting the All-Star game was nonetheless moved when being voted as a reserve this week, after a month in which he averaged 28.9 points with 7.7 assists and 3.6 boards to continue an impressive season, including scoring at least 30 points in eight of the last 10 games.
In fact, Brunson led all NBA players with a remarkable +256 in January, with Anunoby’s +252 No. 2.
“Jalen is phenomenal,” said LeBron. “Super happy for him, super proud of him. First time All-Star, seeing his emotion after the last game, I think that’s just super cool, super dope. Really humble kid; I played against (his father) Rick as well … he’s a super down–to-earth, great guy as well, and he’s raised an unbelievable son.”
LeBron’s ready for the challenge, and excited to play at Madison Square Garden.
“Of course, it’s the mecca of basketball, one of the most prestigious arenas to play in in the history of sports. For me to grace that floor throughout my career has always been a treat, always been fun.”