NEW YORK — All it took was one blow to the face to dampen the luster of a game between two teams that had sky-high expectations but have plummeted back down to Earth as injuries, poor defense, even worse shooting and a lack of cohesion have the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks staring up at the rest of the NBA.
Tuesday night’s nationally televised game showcased two of the league’s storied franchises, as the 2021-22 season was supposed to be a referendum to attract a large viewing audience when both teams are competitive and in a championship window. And these teams have more in common than at first glance, starting with each smarting from first-round exits in last year’s playoffs.
But the big Los Angeles vs. New York showcase took a hit before the game even tipped off.
LeBron James went upside Isaiah Stewart’s head with an elbow Sunday in Detroit, leading to a prolonged melee and the first suspension in the 19-year career of the four-time MVP and a two-game ban plus eight stitches for the Pistons’ second-year center, and taking any sort of drama that a sold-out Madison Square Garden tends to offer — especially when James enters the building.
Without James, supposed interest in the game waned as ticket prices — which were as high as $500 for nosebleed seats — dropped accordingly once the suspension was announced.
The Knicks scored game’s first 10 points, led by as many as 25 before a Carmelo Anthony dunk tied the score 79 with 1:25 left in the third quarter.
Los Angeles rehauled their roster adding another All-Star playmaker in Russell Westbrook, sending away Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and a 2021 first-round draft pick to the Washington Wizards. In the NBA, it’s known as addition by subtraction and only works if the added pieces are a significant upgrade from the ones that were let go.
The Knicks were playing their own mathematical games in the offseason, adding Kemba Walker and Fournier, plus backing up the Brinks truck for Julius Randle, signing him to a four-year, $117 million extension.
After starting the season winning five of its first six games, New York has won only four of its next 13.
The Knicks have become just like every other squad in the NBA: a volume, somewhat efficient, three-point shooting team, firing 34 of them on Tuesday. They’ve added a quicker step to their repertoire, upping their tempo from a league-worst pace from last season. But there is no excuse for the way the team has played thus far, according to Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.
“That’s the challenge for every time going into every season,” he said. “There is always going to be new players on every team. So that’s everybody’s challenge, but I am worried about us.”
For Los Angeles, a 9-10 record plus hot starts by division foes Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors have Frank Vogel’s reconstructed group looking for answers. The Lakers’ issues are multi-pronged, and while they have no issues scoring with five players averaging in double figures, stopping the opponents during different key stretches of the game is a different story.
Multiple blown leads and lapses on the defensive end only begin to highlight the myriad of issues. Even with stalwart Anthony Davis, who is regarded as one of the league’s best defenders, Los Angeles has struggled to stop teams from creating a virtual layup line to the hoop. The Lakers are next to last in points allowed (they were second in 2020-21) and have held only one of their first 19 opponents to 100 points or less.
From the outset of training camp, Vogel has preached having the right mindset, even if it means failure sometimes, especially after adding 11 new players that weren’t on the roster last season.
But the third-year Lakers coach spent most of Tuesday’s loss with his arms folded and his head shaking, as New York hit 15 3-pointers and had three reserves score in double figures. When all else failed on defense, for two possessions in the fourth quarter, the Lakers went to a matchup zone.
Ever the optimist, Vogel again pointed to the team’s poor starts and finishes as a reason for the lackluster record.
“Hell of a fight, we are playing uphill. Makes things difficult,” Vogel said after the game. “We had great looks. We will continue to find ways to generate high-quality looks on offense. We are figuring it out. We are being creative with our defensive sets and it’s just part of our evolution.”
The Knicks were the league’s best defensive team last season, allowing the fewest points allowed per game. The few times they weren’t in shutdown mode, they relied on a breakout campaign from Julius Randle, who rode a new three-point shot all the way to being named Most Improved Player and a second-team All-NBA selection.
But that calling card of defense has gone by the wayside, and once the NBA’s Ebenezer Scrooge, Tom Thibodeau — who looks like it pains him to crack a smile — gets upset about the way his team is playing, they and whoever’s within earshot won’t hear the end of it.
“I’m not happy unless I’m miserable,” he proclaimed last January after his team sung Happy Birthday to him following a 30-point blowout win over the Boston Celtics.
Well, if Thibodeau was miserable then, he is downright despondent these days, despite Tuesday’s result. New York is allowing nearly 109 points a game, going from third in defensive rating, to 17th.
Rotational substitutions have something to do with it, as teams have constantly run quick shooting guards out to the three-point line making 35% of those shots on 39 attempts per game, second-most in the league. On the off chance those field goals don’t make it to the bottom of the net, securing the ball has been an issue. New York ranks in the bottom third of the league in defensive rebound percentage.
After his rant when the Knicks lost to the Bucks two weeks ago, Thibodeau said his starters don’t need to gel because “before you know it, the season’s over. So. it’s a bunch of (expletive).” But he has seemingly come around, at least on the offensive side.
“The ball always finds energy. If we’re doing the right things when we’re pushing the ball and we’re attacking the rim, oftentimes those are the best shots you can get,” he said.
Even with a quarter of the season played, not all is lost and there is ample time for both teams to correct their flaws. There is evidence and the talent to suggest that by playoff time, home-court advantage might be in play, but for now, the fringes of a postseason berth is not the position either team wants to be in.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers at Knicks reveals two teams mired in mediocrity without LeBron