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Lakers-Knicks Preview: Bright Lights, Big Markets

Fans of the Lakers and Knicks should feel a certain kinship these days, or at least a unity of interest. This past summer and fall, "small market" owners - I use scare quotes as a nod to Robert Sarver and others who front like their markets are small as a pretext for cheapness - repeatedly called out the Lakers and Knicks as threats to basketball's future. Both organizations suck in gargantuan revenues and are happy to plow the money back into player payroll. Both are constantly rumored to be favored landing spots of superstars fleeing the necrotic franchises that drafted them. Without a tighter salary cap, a more punitive luxury tax and stricter limits on player movement, the argument went, the NBA would curdle into a stale bipolar world divvied up by the Lakers and Knicks, like Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta. There are other teams in the big-market category, but when the descriptor was invoked to justify the lockout and the owners' obnoxious negotiating postures, it was code for the Lakers and Knicks.

So tonight, when the 1-1 Knicks visit Staples to face the 1-2 Lake Show, fans of the two teams should look across the arena/sports bar/Internet at each other and realize, you know what? We're all in this together. The Knicks haven't been the Lakers' equal when it comes to translating huge-market cash flows into on-court dominance, to say the least, but they're getting better at it. They overpaid for Carmelo Anthony, sure. But he's still Carmelo Anthony, who's done his share of damage to the Lakers over his years. Amare Stoudemire's another cat we know well, and now they've got Compton's own Tyson Chandler, late of the Mavericks. For the first time since Charlie Ward was talking about the Jews, the Knicks have a roster worthy of the Lakers' respect.

Last season the purp and yellow slaughtered the Knicks twice, first by 22 points in January and then by 17 in February. Not that these results are predictive of anything. The Lakers look rather different from the version that visited MSG in February, and the Knicks are unrecognizable. Of the nine New York players who appeared in that game, only three (Amare, Toney Douglas and Landry Fields) are still on the roster. Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov and Wilson Chandler went to Denver in the Melo trade. Shawne Williams signed with New Jersey. Anthony Randolph was traded to Minnesota. Fields and Douglas are now the starting backcourt. Amare, Melo and Chandler start up front.

A look at the Knicks' bench shows how the post-Isiah reconstruction is only half-finished. Eventually the injured Baron Davis will be along to add, shall we say, a certain heft to the rotation. Rookie guard Iman Shumpert is out as well with a sprained MCL. For now that leaves Bill Walker, Mike Bibby, Steve Novak and Renaldo Balkman as the undaunting core of the Knicks' second unit. New York's starters can certainly hold their own with the Lakers', especially with Andrew Bynum still (still!) suspended, but tonight will be one of those rare occasions when the Lake Show will have an advantage with reserves on the floor.

On Christmas Day the Knicks scored a rousing two-point win over the Celtics. They led that game by 17 in the first half, then trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter before Melo took over in the final minutes. He scored 37 and Amare tossed in a very efficient 21. It was a nice win even though the Celts were playing without Paul Pierce. Last night went less well. After three days off the Knicks went to Oakland and got housed by the Warriors. They scored just 78 points, appalling under any circumstances and incomprehensible against the Dubs. Amare and Melo combined to shoot 8 for 27 from the field and 13 for 19 from the line. Chandler played only 22 minutes because of foul trouble and attempted only one shot. Through two games he's been nearly invisible in the Knicks' offense.

So like most other teams, including the Lakers, the Knicks need a little more time to get things rocking. Having played just last night, they'll have to contend with weary legs, a problem compounded by their terrible lack of depth. The Lakers have had a day to rest up from their opening three-game blitz, and with Bynum due back soon it feels like the clouds are starting to lift around this team. If Bynum were in the lineup, tonight's game might look like a double-digit win. Even without him the Lakers are solid 4½-point favorites.

One knock-on effect of Bynum's absence is that Chandler will be able to guard Pau Gasol. Mike D'Antoni will almost surely try to hide Amare defensively by sticking him on McBobs and Troy Murphy. We probably won't get to see Pau work too much against Amare in the blocks, which is unfortunate considering how badly Pau dominated that matchup in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. The Bynum suspension is truly the gift that never stops giving.

I'd expect to see more Metta World Peace than we have so far, in part because he's shooting well and in part because there's probably no one in the NBA who's spent more time checking Carmelo. No need for Mike Brown to switch up the starting lineup: Devin Ebanks and MWP are both in decent grooves that shouldn't be disturbed, and we might as well get a look at what Ebanks can do against Melo. But this could be MWP's night to show he can lock down with the best of them.

The Lakers don't play again until Saturday, but that's an early afternoon tip, making tonight's game the first of an almost-back-to-back. This is the last game without Drew (for now) and if the Lakers come out of his four-game suspension with a 2-2 record, they'll have reason to feel they've weathered a storm.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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