11:19 am Feb. 9, 20121
It is clearer than ever, following Wednesday night's 107-93 victory by the Knicks over the Washington Wizards, that New York has a cultural phenomenon in Jeremy Lin. But more important from the team's perspective, Lin is obviously a legitimate talent.
Perhaps it is natural that the same trust in the system to evaluate basketball players on their way up—the system in which Lin was shunned by UCLA, went undrafted after starring at Harvard, and then was cut by two N.B.A. teams before the Knicks picked him up—has led people to assume Lin's breakout performances are a fluke.
But aside from the caveats that would go along with any rookie's breakout, there's reason to believe that Jeremy Lin can be a strong starting point guard in this league for a long time.
Unlike Tim Tebow, the craze-inspring sporting icon to whom Lin is often compared, Lin doesn't lack something vital to playing his position well. Tebow, is so fascinating as a professional football quarterback, in part, because he can’t throw medium-length passes with any real strength or accuracy, and because he tends to struggle for up to three quarters before making an impact. There is drama in everything he does, because the limits of his talent make it all so improbable.
Lin, in fact, possesses an athleticism and intelligence that belie his status as an underdog. And in the regular playing time, he's demonstrated that, making himself a strong positive factor in New York's victories from start to finish. He has become so vital so quickly, in fact, that Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni has become reluctant to take him out of the game at all.
In Washington on Wednesday night, Lin cleared another hurdle, facing the Wizards' point guard John Wall. Unlike Lin, who graduated in time to be drafted in 2010 and was duly ignored by every team in the league, Wall was the top overall pick that year. Wall possesses speed that makes the quick Lin, or really anyone, look like Josh Harrellson. And to be sure, Wall did some damage, scoring 29 points and dishing out six assists.
But Wall could do little to stop Lin, who scored 23 points of his own, and added 10 assists—the first Knick to reach double figures in assists this season—and even provided four rebounds, a steal and a block. Most vital, he played 36 minutes, with the ball constantly in his hands, and turned it over just twice all night.
Oh, and he also did this, driving, dunking, and firing up his teammates.
Needless to say, he's been a catalyst for the fans, too. Last night, he received the loudest cheers of anyone in the starting lineup. For either team. On the road. Lin signs were everywhere in the crowd. He received a standing ovation at the end of the game—again, in a road arena.
Lin returns home on Friday night, and he'll face his biggest challenges yet. With Carmelo Anthony still injured, and Amar'e Stoudemire in Florida grieving his brother until Monday, the Knicks will face the Lakers and Timberwolves on back-to-back nights with little more than Lin, Tyson Chandler, and a supporting cast of players who would otherwise struggle to get into an N.B.A. rotation.
The Lakers are struggling lately, and will be playing their second game in two nights, but they still have Kobe Bryant, while the Knicks have no one to guard him. Tyson Chandler's night will be taken up largely by holding center Andrew Bynum in check, possibly limiting him offensively. It will be up to Lin to counter Bryant offensively—one the the N.B.A.'s greatest scorers ever. Certainly, it provides the kind of cinematic setup that has allowed Lin to wow his growing throng of admirers. But it is the most difficult challenge yet.
Following that, Lin and the Knicks head to Minnesota, facing a Timberwolves team with a point-guard phenom of their own—the astonishing passer Ricky Rubio, direct from Spain—and a power forward in Kevin Love with no obvious counterpart on the New York side, absent Stoudemire. Once again, Lin will be called upon to carry his team—but unlike facing the Wizards, his opponent is among the better teams in the N.B.A.
It is important to note that Lin may struggle in these games. In fact, it is pretty surprising that any point guard is thriving in a New York lineup without its only two reliable scorers, playing as many minutes in a week as he played all of last season, and with defenses now keying on him.
But that doesn't mean that Linsanity is over. Monday, Stoudemire returns, and the man who earned a max contract from the Knicks because of his ability to score off of the pick and roll will finally have a point guard who excels at the play. Shortly thereafter, Carmelo Anthony is expected back.
And then, the Knicks will not only be loaded with talent, but they'll have a competent point guard to choreograph it. In other words, this fad may just be getting started.