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Hartnett: Melo Versus Bryant Has The Makings Of A Christmas Day Classic

By Sean Hartnett
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NBA fans on both coasts are in for a Christmas Day treat when the New York Knicks take the court at Staples Center to battle the reinvigorated Los Angeles Lakers at 3 p.m. Eastern time.

The Lakers were shorthanded when former Knicks' head coach Mike D'Antoni was mocked and booed in his return to Madison Square Garden on December 13.  Veteran Laker stars Steve Nash and Pau Gasol both missed the occasion due to injury.

New York took advantage of the Lakers' diminished lineup as they exploded for 116 points.  The Knicks scored at will behind the three-point line, hitting 12 of 25 shots from downtown.

Carmelo Anthony could have scored over 50 points had he played the entire four quarters in their first meeting.  Melo dropped 22 points in the first quarter, but left the game halfway through the third quarter due to a sprained left ankle.  He finished with 30 points in the Knicks' 116-107 victory.

Melo Versus Kobe Will Produce Fireworks On Christmas Day

Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The NBA's two highest scorers lock horns in a mouth-watering match-up on Christmas Day.  It's like the force of two worlds colliding, Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed -- or Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla.

Anthony is averaging 28.3 points per game, which is second only to Kobe Bryant's league-best 29.7 points per game.  Since returning against the Nets on December 19, Melo is averaging 31.0 points in three games.

Injuries, on-court adversities and challenges from demanding head coach Mike Woodson have intensified Melo's focus.  He gets that look in his eye that can only be compared to Kobe's intimidating late-game stare.  It's obvious to anyone watching how badly Anthony wants to close out every game and leave it all on the floor.

After nearly every game, Woodson uses the letters M-V-P during his press conferences describe Anthony's contributions to the Knicks' unexpected 20-7 record.  Few NBA analysts believed the Knicks had what was needed to push the Miami Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference as New Year's Day approaches.

The older, 17-year veteran Bryant hasn't seen his production slip at 34.  Actually, his 2012-13 field goal percentage of .471 is the best of his career.  In addition, Kobe's points per game mark of 29.7 is his highest since the 2006-07 season.

Bryant has been averaging 31.8 points per game in his last five games and "The Black Mamba" received his Christmas gift a game early when Steve Nash returned to the Lakers' lineup on Saturday against the Golden State Warriors.

Streaking Lakers Getting Healthier Going Into Christmas Day

Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Los Angeles has won four games in a row heading into Tuesday's clash with the Knicks and are coming off a confidence-building overtime victory over the Warriors.

The Lakers have regained their swagger and that's because Nash is back at the controls at point guard.  Nash played just under 41 minutes in his return against the Warriors.  Having Nash log that many minutes in his first game back after recovering from a fractured fibula is a very good sign for the Lake Show.

Nash's return changes everything for the Lakers.  No one can run the D'Antoni offense quite like Nash, even if he's nearing his 39th birthday.  His health will determine how high the Lakers can climb the Western Conference ladder.  Currently, the Lakers sit 11th overall in the Western Conference standings.

The West is stacked with powerhouses like the Thunder, Spurs and Grizzlies. It's not unrealistic to imagine the Lakers overtaking the Clippers in the Pacific and gaining a top four playoff seed.  For now, their goal is to break into the top eight.

We all know that a team that can boast Kobe, Nash, Howard and Gasol should be able to put a long streak together.  Like Nash, Gasol is healthy again after nursing off the effects of patellar tendonitis. The tall Spaniard has two games under his belt since making his return against the Bobcats a week ago.

Gasol is averaging a fraction below a double-double in each his two games back.  The question now is whether D'Antoni can figure out a way to incorporate the lumbering Gasol into his run-and-gun offense.  D'Antoni's system seems to go against the grain of Gasol's natural need to get touches in the low post.

While Nash and Gasol have recovered from their injuries, Dwight Howard isn't quite 100%.  His recovery from a hernitated disc in his back is an ongoing process.

Camby Ready To Go After 12-Game Absence, 'Sheed Ailing

Marcus Camby
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Marcus Camby has missed the past 12 games due to nagging plantar fasciitis in his left foot.  He last saw action in late November against the Nets.  Mike Woodson needs Camby healthy, so he can decrease Tyson Chandler's workload.  Chandler is averaging 35.6 minutes per game in his last five games.

Meanwhile, Rasheed Wallace has missed the past five games due to what the Knicks are calling a "sore foot" and will miss Tuesday's contest with the Lakers.  One Knicks source told the Daily News that the injury is actually a stress fracture.

Amar'e Stoudemire has traveled with the Knicks on their road trip, but he is yet to practice with his teammates because the Knicks aren't running full practices due to scheduling reasons.  Earlier this week, Stoudemire practiced with the Knicks' D-League affiliate, the Erie Bayhawks, and needs more practice time before he is ready for game action.

Wishing my readers a very Merry Christmas everyone and warm holiday greetings.  Enjoy today's NBA action...

Who will be king on Christmas Day?  Knicks or Lakers... Melo or Kobe?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.

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