Christmas Day's second NBA game was supposed to pit one of the league's likely elite teams with another in a big market that was expected to be mediocre. It still will, but the roles have been reversed. Led by Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd, the New York Knicks have raced to the top of the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers' struggles have been well documented.
Three-point shooting and a huge season from Anthony have caused the Knicks to fare far better than even the most optimistic preseason prognosticators expected. With Amar'e Stoudemire injured, the Knicks have elected to slide Anthony to power forward, which has been a huge boon to their offense. The move opened up the floor and has helped cause the Knicks to shoot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. Meanwhile, Anthony is now going up against slower power forwards and is playing more unselfishly than ever. It's hard to find the perfect moment when talent and chemistry meet, and the Knicks appear to have found it.
But there have been some troubling issues that have emerged in recent games. The Knicks' defense began the year near the top of the league, but it's fallen to 15th in points allowed per 100 possessions. Teams like the Chicago Bulls have exposed their lack of size, and teams like the Houston Rockets have exposed their lack of speed. The Knicks still have the league's best isolation scorer, best pick-and-roll center and a truckload of excellent three-point shooters, but they run the risk of falling off if they can't fix their defense.
The Lakers, meanwhile, got some positive news with the return of Steve Nash over the weekend, but they still have plenty of problems to fix. Nash helped the Lakers get a critical win on the road against a good Golden State Warriors team, but I'm guessing that having Kobe Bryant take 41 shots wasn't part of the original game plan. Los Angeles' defense is still a problem, and it will continue to be until Dwight Howard gets fully healthy. Will that happen this year? These quotes certainly make you wonder.
Game time: 3 p.m. ET
STAR WATCH: Covering Anthony might be a chore early on if the Lakers continue to bring Metta World Peace off the bench. Anthony got off to a really fast start when these teams last played in mid-December, and surely Mike D'Antoni doesn't want to see that happen again.
X-FACTOR: How will the Lakers keep Pau Gasol on the court? Gasol will get his minutes at center when Howard sits, but given how much the Knicks go small, it's going to be very tempting for D'Antoni to put Gasol on the bench and play World Peace at power forward for large stretches.
KEY TREND TO WATCH: This game is going to be all about pace, but not in the traditional "running team vs. half-court team clash of styles" kind of way. The Knicks absolutely killed the Lakers in transition in their win on Dec. 13, particularly from the three-point line. The Lakers need to have much better floor balance if they want to win the rematch. Luckily, this is where the return of Steve Nash probably helps the most.
PREDICTION: Lakers 102, Knicks 95.