11:34 am Feb. 21, 20122
That nightmare scenario about what would happen to the Knicks's Jeremy Lin-inspired happy period when Carmelo Anthony returned from his groin injury came to pass in Monday night's 100-92 loss to the New Jersey Nets at Madison Square Garden.
Anthony struggled to find his shot. Amar'e Stoudemire disappeared for long stretches. Jeremy Lin even shied away from directing the offense at times. And the rest of the Knicks struggled to find their roles.
But to have expected anything else, on a night when Anthony played for the first time in two weeks, and Baron Davis also made his debut, and J.R. Smith played in just his second game for New York, would have been to expect a miracle on par with the advent of Jeremy Lin himself.
Now the real work can begin.
Even last night, in an ugly loss to a mediocre team, the Knicks provided hints of what they can be at full strength. In fact, the first five minutes of the first quarter gave false hope that the transition would be seamless. Lin quickly found Tyson Chandler filling the lane for a thunderous dunk to open the scoring, then operated beautifully in a two-man set with Anthony that resulted in Anthony's first shot, a made 12-footer.
Stoudemire scored on a pair of Anthony assists, and by the time the Nets looked up, New York was ahead, 13-3.
But that 1970 feeling in Madison Square Garden subsided. Playing without their best perimeter defender, Iman Shumpert (out with knee tendinitis), the Knicks allowed the Nets lots of open looks at three-point shots. New Jersey made 15 of them, at a 48 percent clip, including eight from Deron Williams in a downright heroic performance. (Williams seemed very much to be making a point of showing up Lin, after having been bettered the last time the two teams met, in the game that kicked off Lin's run with the Knicks.)
Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony shot just 4-for-11 overall, missing a number of layups that he'd normally convert easily. The good news for Anthony, and more important for the Knicks, is he was quite comfortable moving without the ball and working for shots within the offense. The spacing was problematic at times. But that's precisely what happens when a unit hasn't had time to play together.
Stoudemire's struggles were more worrisome. The once-explosive finisher has seen his shot blocked at a far higher rate this year than ever before. He did, however, work with Anthony in a two-man set on a number of occasions, and the fewer shot attempts in the paint had as much to do with the New Jersey defense collapsing on Lin—with a physicality that previous officiating crews have seen fit to call as fouls—than with an inability to make himself available within the new offense.
Lin, meanwhile, simply appeared to run out of gas near the end of the third quarter. This isn't a shock: he was playing without a night of rest following another 45-minute performance against Dallas. Bowing to reality, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni rested Lin with 8:52 left in the game and the Knicks down, 85-72. After Lin returned at the 6:07 mark, he had eight points before fouling out, too late to make a difference.
Lin's game overall was a strong one: 21 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, four steals and just three turnovers. It didn't help the Knicks last night, but it did seem to show that Lin has the ability to run this offense with a full complement of stars.
As for point guard Baron Davis, who finally joined the team on the court after recovering from a back injury, his ten minutes were not reassuring. He seemed to confirm every last doubt about him by taking the ball in isolation near the sideline, turning around and heaving a perimeter shot with a hand in his face as soon as he entered the game. He didn't look particularly sharp on defense, either.
Still, this was only Davis's first game back. If rust is to be expected on Anthony after two weeks off, what more could be expected from Davis after many months off? He played, his back did not betray him, and his game should improve in the weeks ahead.
Fortunately for New York, they don't need him to be a full-time point-guard savior anymore. At the moment, what they need from him is to play enough to keep Lin fresh. How eagerly he embraces that role remains to be seen.
Perhaps the most encouraging play came from new acquisition J.R. Smith, who it must be remembered, has played in two games for New York, without participating in a single practice. His three assists belied his reputation as a shoot-only guard, while his four rebounds and perimeter defense gave New York some necessary energy to fuel a comeback attempt in the final quarter.
Smith even had what could have been the play of the night. Incredibly, he managed to penetrate to the basket and then make a 360-degree turn before finding Steve Novak alone in the corner for three. But then the usually accurate Novak missed the shot.
It was that kind of night. The results weren't there. But the reasons to be encouraged about the Knicks' longer-term prospects were all over the place.