EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It's been a while since Spike Lee could sit courtside at Staples Center with his beloved Knicks in town to play the Los Angeles Lakers with confidence that New York might actually win. Forgive him if he seems a little giddy Sunday night, when the Knicks and the Lakers square off for the first time this season.
The Knicks arrive with a 21-14 record, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference, particularly impressive record given their 3-8 start to the season.
Both teams will enter Sunday's game on a roll. The Lakers have won five of six after losing three straight games by 16 points or more. Phil Jackson, who has preached patience for much of the season, sees improvement.
"We're shooting the ball better," Jackson said Saturday. "That's a significant factor. I'm still not totally pleased with how we're defending, but we're coming along little by little."
The Knicks defeated San Antonio, currently sporting the league's best record, on Tuesday night, then trounced Phoenix on Friday for their third straight win, and second without injured forward Danilo Gallinari, out two to three weeks with a knee injury.
The Lakers will be without reserve forward Matt Barnes, who left Friday's game against New Orleans in the first half with a knee injury. He underwent an MRI on Saturday morning in Los Angeles and was diagnosed with a tear of the lateral meniscus in his right knee. He will
undergo surgery sometime early next week, at which point the team will provide a timetable for his return.
The Lakers did receive good news, though, when backup point guard Steve Blake was able to practice after leaving Friday's game with an injury to his left ankle. He is expected to play Sunday.
Losing Barnes, Jackson said, would hurt, robbing the Lakers of depth and speed, particularly against a quality opponent.
"[New York is] playing at a high level. Their offense is clicking right along, and seemed to go by the Gallinari injury without a hitch," Jackson said. "[Wilson] Chandler and
[Raymond] Felton are playing really well, and the addition of [Amare] Stoudemire has obviously been a big boost.
"If they impose their game on our team, it's going to be a long night for us," Jackson said. "They're going to score a lot of points."
While the quick improvement this season for the Knicks has surprised some, Kobe Bryant isn't among them. He said Saturday that New York's performance is "to be expected." Beyond the high-profile acquisition of Stoudemire, Bryant credited the Knicks for a shrewd move in signing Felton to play the point.
"He's a fantastic player," Bryant said. "Tough defender, good playmaker, can knock big shots. I think that was something that snuck by everybody. Adding Stoudemire, obviously, but picking up Raymond was a huge help."
When the Knicks inked Stoudemire this summer to a five-year, $99.7 million contract, there was some question whether the five-time All-Star, who has missed significant chunks of games thanks to knee and eye injuries over the previous eight years of his career, might represent a health risk or suffer in the absence of Steve Nash, his MVP point guard in Phoenix.
Fair to say Stoudemire has, at the very least, put the latter worry to bed. Averaging 26.3 points, nine rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, he has injected his name into early MVP talk. Bryant didn't count himself among the doubters.
"He's playing the way I thought he would play. I never bought into the nonsense that Steve makes Amare what Amare is," he said. "It was always kind of silly to me, because he can do everything. So I think he's a deserving candidate for [the award]."
Still, when asked about the MVP chants Stoudemire now hears at the Garden, Bryant, who has heard the same thing in arenas throughout the league -- including in New York -- couldn't help but smile. "They chant MVP at home crowds for anybody. They chant MVP for Earl Boykins in Milwaukee."
Bryant also took the opportunity to offer advice to Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, who isfacing a decision about his future and has been linked in a variety of rumors to the Knicks, without recommending a destination. "Do what makes you happy. It's as simple as that. Do what makes you happy. LeBron [James] did it. And obviously the way he went about it pissed a lot of people off, but at the core of his decision was he wanted to do what made him happy. I think Carmelo should do the same thing."
Brian Kamenetzky hosts the Land O'Lakers Blog at ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESPNLandOLakers