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Game Preview: Knicks at Lakers — 03/12/23

The league’s biggest teams meet with both in need of a win

The 2023 Los Angeles Lakers have been written off more than . . . well, than any politician still in power who you consider to be so gross it’s hard to believe they’re anywhere other than a jail cell or six feet under. The implication behind their continued existence is clear: powerful forces working behind the scenes can shape reality enough to determine which stories about it are told, and which are forgotten. You could say the same of these Lakers.

The term “Laker exceptionalism” is usually meant to snag in their haters’ hearts; it’s a term to explain why the breaks always seem to break L.A.’s way, why you can’t judge them the way you do other, lowlier franchises. The Lakers aren’t just the NBA’s glamour club; they’re on the short list of teams the world over who could argue they’re the G.O.A.T. But exceptional is as exceptional does.

Once the organization signed LeBron James in the summer of 2018, they set about creating a new exceptionalism. After 15 years of evidence showing LeBron is best alongside teammates who can shoot and play off of him, the Lakers surrounded him with big, strong dudes. It worked in 2020, but it’s weird how they keep going back to it, keep resisting the simplest path to success for a team led by James. The past couple years have been a microcosm of that stubborn WTFery.

Russell Westbrook was a curious addition to a team with James and Anthony Davis, in the sense that he can’t shoot and needs the ball to be effective, however inefficient that effectiveness. It was clear last season the mix didn’t make sense. It took L.A. up until the trade deadline to finally move off him; that subtraction, coupled with the additions of D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt, have given the Lakers their best depth all season. However, they recently lost LeBron through the rest of this month to an injured tendon in his right foot. AD has helped lead them through their latest ordeal, winners of three straight after dropping two of their first three sans LBJ and, stretching back to when he was active, eight of 11.

After spending most of the season outside the play-in, the Lakers are currently ninth, only two games behind the fifth-seeded Clippers and two ahead of the 13th-seeded Trail Blazers. They’ve taken their lumps and taken a lotta shots from a lot of us, but as the Knicks are seeing near the tail end of their season, 82 games is a long time. Plenty of time to re-write history. With a win today the Lakers would reach .500 for the first time all season. Imagine Sacramento finally breaks their playoff-less streak, the longest in pro sports, go so far as to win the two-spot in the West, and their reward for that is getting the Lakers in the first round? Or Phoenix gets Kevin Durant right before the playoffs, gets pumped for a long postseason run and they face-off with the Lakers in round one?

There’s a lot on the line for the Knicks, too. Ever since the feds started cracking down on opioids, nothing soothes the nerves like a win, and the Knicks — absent Jalen Brunson with a potentially concerning injury, plus winless in their last three games — are looking maybe just a tiny bit jittery. There’s no good time to go on a losing streak, but this late in the season is especially passé. A win over the Lakers settles the ship; follow that up with one Tuesday in Portland and this trifling troika of trouble is fast forgotten.

James and Mo Bamba are listed as out for the Lakers. Davis is questionable, which means he’s playing. Russell will be available as well after missing six games with a right ankle sprain; he was brilliant in his first game back, a win over Toronto. Keep an eye on the pace to see which team is controlling the narrative: the Knicks play at the league’s fourth-slowest pace, while the Lakers are the second-fastest.