3:58 pm Feb. 8, 2012
If Jeremy Lin never again plays as well as he did in his last two appearances for the Knicks, the fans will never forget him.
A pair of electrifying performances, equal parts basketball beauty and surprise, lit up Madison Square Garden in a way that it hasn’t been since before the departure of Patrick Ewing.
Still, it’s not clear yet whether Lin’s performances were merely memorable, or whether they actually portend something significant for the Knicks' future.
Lin's skills, and the way they fit with the other Knicks on the roster, certainly suggest that he could be an important player, maybe for some time to come. But we’ll have no way of knowing immediately: With Carmelo Anthony out for the next 1-2 weeks with a groin injury, and Amar'e Stoudemire mourning the loss of his brother, Lin will face the Washington Wizards under the same circumstances he faced Monday, needing not merely to fit in with the Knicks but to carry them.
Friday night’s game may be more telling, if Stoudemire returns in time to play against the Lakers, and it would be more revealing still if Anthony returns shortly after that, as the team hopes.
Stoudemire in particular stands to benefit enormously from Lin’s presence. His offensive game is largely built around the pick and roll, and around receiving the ball in close quarters right around the basket. Lin's two biggest strengths on the offensive end, as it happens, are running the pick and roll and penetrating. Lin's impressive finishing means that defenders simply can't back off of him when he drives, which in turn means that when he does drive, he should be able to find Stoudemire.
Once Anthony returns, Lin's potential to help should be even clearer. Anthony is one of the finest scorers in the league. But if defenses pay too much attention to him, it will simply create additional space for Lin and Stoudemire to operate in a two-man game. Pay him too little attention, of course, and Anthony can defeat teams by himself. Lin's ability to find Anthony will also allow him to score more frequently in the flow of the offense, rather than simply needing isolation plays to get his points. That redounds to everyone else's benefit.
Tyson Chandler's offense also figures to improve with Lin at the controls. Not that Chandler has been struggling this year—he's shooting almost 71 percent from the field so far. But it is precisely this efficiency that should be exploited more by the Knicks, and in Lin, a point guard who can both effectively find Chandler with lobs and short passes following penetration, the Knicks finally have someone to do it.
It will be fascinating to see how the Knicks deploy their shooting guards once everyone else is back. Within this offensive context, the best New York could do at the position is to simply use a pure perimeter shooter at the position to stretch opposing defenses out. (Allan Houston, how's that knee feeling?) In Iman Shumpert, the Knicks have largely the opposite type of player—a slasher whose weakness on offense is the consistency of his jump shot.
Landry Fields is a better potential fit, having shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range last year, but that number is down to just 28 percent so far this year. The rumored acquisition of J.R. Smith, most recently of Denver, would be perfect: Smith is a career 37-percent three-point shooter, 39 percent last season. In the meantime, New York needs to deploy Fields and Shumpert, while taking advantage of Lin's ability to find the perimeter shooter when three-point specialist Steve Novak takes the floor for the second unit.
The combination of Lin and Fields or Shumpert does provide a bonus on the defensive end, with all three players excelling at jumping into passing lanes and forcing steals. Both Fields and Shumpert are in the N.B.A.'s top 15 in steals, while Lin had a pair of steals in each of the last two games. Having a backcourt that can turn over the opposition 4-5 times a game is a huge defensive advantage by itself. And both Lin and Shumpert are particularly good on-ball defenders, while Fields uses intelligence to make up for some shortcomings in quickness.
Ultimately, it is neither advisable nor necessary for Jeremy Lin to attempt to match the average 26.5 points per game he's put up in these last two revelatory performances, nor should he lead the team in shot attempts. But unlike the other players who have filled his position this year—Toney Douglas comes to mind—Lin seems entirely aware of how to use his talents to make his teammates better. And with the grim news about Baron Davis' back, Lin should get every opportunity to show a calmoring fan-base just how real his success is.