2:30 pm Feb. 23, 20121
The basketball world has had nearly three weeks to adjust to its new hierarchy. Still, it was delightfully novel to hear Lin vouching for Carmelo Anthony in Lin's post-game press conference, following New York's 99-82 drubbing of the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I think he's doing a great job of drawing two [defenders] and kicking, or scoring when he needs to score, and running the lane,” Lin declared to a room full of reporters, many of whom had expressed the concern that the NCAA champion, Olympian and five-time N.B.A. All-Star might cause problems for the team run by the Harvard graduate and waiver-wire pickup.
“I thought he played really well tonight," Lin said, of Anthony. "He's just going to continue to improve. It's just his second game back. He was out for a while—I think we kind of forget that. I think tomorrow night, we're going to need him to score, for sure.”
Lin was referring to the showdown with LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the final game the Knicks will play before the All-Star break. James has expressed irritation at having been made to talk about Jeremy Lin so often lately, and indicated that he will likely be the one guarding Lin at times on Thursday night in Miami.
But if the Knicks execute offensively the way they did over the first 26 minutes of their game against Atlanta, racing out to a 67-37 lead, Miami will have more to contend with than just Jeremy Lin. That's going to be the plan, at least.
The Hawks entered Wednesday night's game in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, just ahead of the Knicks, and boasting one of the better defenses in the league. But Atlanta simply failed to keep up with New York from the start.
Landry Fields had seven of his 16 points in the first four minutes of the game. With so much of the perimeter defense focused on Lin, the somewhat quickness-challenged Fields has had extra room to operate, and the results have been impressive.
Fields scored in double figures for the sixth time in the Knicks' 11 Lin-era games, and has done so in each of the last three. Once Fields finds room, he is an able finisher, and has repeatedly punished teams for ignoring him. If he can find the long-distance range he possessed last year—his 39 percent accuracy from deep last season has dipped to just 26 percent—he won't just avoid being a liability; he'll be a force.
Lin distributed the ball well whenever the Knicks had it. His 17 points came on just 11 shots, and Carmelo Anthony got 16 shot opportunities. Anthony is at his best when he is constantly moving, and Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's offense encourages and rewards that kind of behavior. Even though Anthony shot only 7-for-16, he was repeatedly getting the kind of open looks that he will bury as plays himself back into pre-injury form.
“We've got a lot of guys out there, sharing the ball, so his 17 and 9, about right,” D'Antoni said, in his post-game press availability, of Lin's ability to run this talent-laden offense. “He's making the right plays, smart. He's savvy; just a good point guard. I can see him going to certain people when you should have, understanding who needs the ball this time, who needs it that time, and getting people off. He's really good.”
More encouraging still was that Lin played just under 29 minutes, a far cry from the 40-plus minutes he's been logging throughout much of his emergence. The explanation for that is that the Knicks now have a reasonable alternative in Baron Davis, who played 14 minutes in just his second game back from injury. Davis struggled with turnovers, especially in his first-half stint substituting for Lin. But his six assists and two steals served as indicators that he can be an impact player on both ends of the floor, and more important, can keep Jeremy Lin from tiring near the end of games that are far closer than this one.
“He's getting there,” D'Antoni said of Davis. “He hasn't played for a year, he laid in bed for about three months with a bad back, and this is to be expected. I can see little stuff—that's good, that's good, ooh-ooh—you see where he's rusty. But he's gonna be good, and this is gonna be a nice little tandem that we have coming in, and nothing should drop off. That's not normal around the N.B.A., having two guys who can play the way they'll play.”
J.R. Smith was tremendous in the second unit as well, providing 12 points, five rebounds and five steals. And Steve Novak, powered by five threes, actually tied Lin for top scoring honors on the night, with 17 points.
The once-thin Knicks no longer have a shortage of weapons. New York took a 67-37 lead on an Anthony three on a great find by Lin with 10 minutes to go in the third quarter. The Knicks took most of the rest of the night off, hoping for relatively fresh legs as they headed into Miami without an off-night.
James and the Heat will provide a useful measure of just how far the Knicks have come so far. As Jeremy Lin will be the first to admit, he's not the only guy they have to worry about.