It was one of those nights at Madison Square Garden when the crowd was electric and the stars were sprinkled throughout the stands. J. Cole and Howard Stern sitting near centercourt, Giants receiver Sterling Sheppard between them. Jim Gaffigan and Hank Azaria on one side, Phil Collins and Mets’ Jeff McNeil on the other.
The only problem was that it seemed like the stars — like much of the crowd — were there for the only appearance of the Los Angeles Lakers, who arrived with the sort of star power the Knicks have spent two decades salivating over.
With Lakers jerseys adorned with LeBron James’ No. 23 and Anthony Davis’s No. 3 taking up many more seats than the celebrities, the crowd was loud, but mostly cheering on the Lakers, who came into the Garden in first place in the Western Conference and left with a 100-92 win over the Knicks and a 35-9 record.
Davis led the way for Los Angeles with 28 points and James added 21. Dwight Howard pulled down 12 rebounds.
Marcus Morris led the Knicks with 20 points, Damyean Dotson came off the bench with 17, including 5-for-11 from three-point range and Julius Randle added 16.
While the Knicks are approaching the February 6 trade deadline still trying to find out which pieces fit from their summer makeover, the Lakers have had none of those growing pains. While it helps to have a pair of All-NBA players as the pieces trying to fit together, the Lakers still took no time to get the new roster acclimated to each other.
When James had piled up 19 points 18 minutes into the game it seemed as if the most interesting part of the night for the Lakers, James and most of the crowd at Madison Square Garden which was crowded with Lakers fans, was whether James could get to 65 points and catch Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
But as he has on most nights, he seemed content to find his teammates — playing the sort of team game than only the most elderly of Knicks fans remember the 1969-70 Knicks playing when the ball moved quickly from future Hall of Famer to future Hall of Famer. James would score only two more points — leaving him 44 points short of Bryant as he moves to Brooklyn to face the Nets Thursday night.
“I haven’t thought about it too much,” James said. “It’s another guy I looked up to when I was in grade school and high school. I saw him come straight out of high school. someone that the inspiration was a lot. A kid that’s 17 years old, coming to the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise. It was like, I just wanted to use that as motivation. He helped me before he even knew me because of what he was able to do. Just to be able to at this point of my career share the same jersey he wore and represent the purple and gold, its very humbling. It’s dope. Kobe’s a legend. That’s for damn sure.”
The Knicks put up a much better fight than they did in Los Angeles earlier in the month when they dropped a 30-point decision. They played that game without Marcus Morris and this time, he was a game-time decision. But after warming up he was placed in the starting lineup and responded with a team-high 20 points.
“The plan is to continue to win, continue to develop,” Morris said. “We still are not out of the playoff race. I think we’re seven games back. Hopefully, we put a good one together. But I think as a team we’re trending in the right direction, some tough losses. The Sixers game, it was a five-second count. So that being said we could have won that one against a really good team in the East. We go to Cleveland and play really well. And tonight we hold them to 100 points. So we’re trending in the right direction.”
Six minutes into the game the Knicks were shooting 73 percent and leading, 15-12, with Taj Gibson leading all scorers. But that never felt as if it was going to stick, even when the Knicks managed to hang around for a 48-48 tie at halftime.
The Lakers took a 76-70 lead into the fourth quarter and stretched the advantage to as many as 13 early in the fourth quarter. The Lakers still held a 94-84 lead when James went to the free-throw line with 1:45 left and the Garden rose in a loud chant of, “M-V-P.” But he missed both free throws and after Morris hit a three-point field goal, James misfired from beyond the arc. But Dotson missed a three with 59.2 seconds left.
The ball went off the Lakers and Alex Caruso then committed a foul away from the ball before it was inbounded, sending Morris to the line for one free throw, which he converted to close the gap to six with 57.5 remaining. But Randle airmailed a three-pointer from the corner and when the ball went off the Lakers, the Knicks had another chance. However, Randle had the ball stolen from him in the lane.
A tip-in by Davis upped the lead to eight and a Randle drive was as close as the Knicks would get the rest of the way.