Amid resurgent Linsanity and a clinical display of team basketball by the Knicks, the Garden calls for Steve Novak
7:51 am Mar. 1, 2012
Try to imagine this: Jeremy Lin’s excellent performance in Wednesday night's 120-103 blowout of the Cleveland Cavaliers—he had 19 points, 13 assists and just one turnover while facing the likely rookie of the year and top overall pick, Kyrie Irving—was not the emotional focal of the game for the fans or the swelled media contingent at Madison Square Garden.
Instead, the focus was on another player who has only recently emerged, and whose role in the Knicks’ game plan is more limited: long-distance shooter Steve Novak. In the fourth quarter, with New York holding a sizable lead over Cleveland (and with Lin on the floor), Knicks fans began to chant: “We want Novak! We want Novak!”
“To hear them chanting my name at The Garden, it's one of the highlights of my career,” a smiling Novak, seated at his locker, calmly told a smaller group of reporters who hung around after the full contingent had had its fill. (The Knicks press people had Lin giving a separate press conference, in the main media room.)
Novak, dressed in jeans and a green-striped button-down shirt, looked every bit the college man he was at Marquette, where he fulfilled an identical designated-shooter role for the Golden Eagles to the one he now holds with the Knicks.
Novak's entire career has been one of extremes. He’s not a terrific overall athlete, and his shortcomings in that regard have meant that he’s never been a star, in college or the N.B.A. But the thing that makes him highly useful anyway is that he shoots the three-pointer about as well as anyone in the league. Ever.
To date, Novak's accuracy in his career—a bit above 42 percent—ranks him tenth in league history, behind players who had long, successful runs: Tim Legler, Stephen Curry and the all-time leader, at 45.4 percent, Steve Kerr. Novak is actually shooting better than Kerr's career mark this season, hitting 45.7 percent of his three-point shots.
It may seem like an obvious point, but a three-point shooter as effective as Novak is a weapon on par with an interior scorer who is nearly unstoppable, because, well, his shots are worth more. In essence, 45.7 percent on threes is the equivalent of shooting 68.6 percent on twos. For reference, the only player in the N.B.A. with a better shooting percentage than that is Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who at 70.3 percent is by far the most efficient shooter in the league this season.
For much of the game, the atmosphere at the Garden bore little resemblance to the giddiness that has characterized home games during the Jeremy Lin era. The Cavs, who had a 13-19 record heading into the night, stormed out to a 17-point lead in the second quarter, keyed by—theme of the night—really accurate three-point shooting. Cleveland shot 6-for-11 from deep in the first half, and entered the break ahead 61-49, to sporadic, irritated exhortations from a mostly silent crowd.
The fans haven't booed the Knicks since Jeremy Lin started playing. The closest they'll come is general murmurs of disapproval when Carmelo Anthony takes a shot while well-defended, the implicit feeling behind it that Lin should be the one taking such a shot.
But what they were watching in the Cleveland game was more weird than anything else: The Cavaliers, unlike Novak, are not routinely fantastic shooters, yet they were ahead at the half because they'd been lights-out.
Their second-half distance shooting—3-of-9—more closely conformed to their season mark of 35.4 percent. Novak, who had been held to a single basket—a two-pointer, of all things—then went to work.
“In the first half, I missed a couple,” Novak explained in response to a question about how he gets “in the zone.” “Then I made a shot, and then Jeremy found me in transition, though I missed my second, because it was in rhythm, it didn't feel like I missed it, almost. And then when that third shot went down, it's like you are in touch with your body—your body does exactly what your brain says.”
The process looks every bit as fluid as Novak makes it sound. He doesn't have the quickest release, but he doesn't really need to—not when he's getting fed consistently by Lin and Baron Davis, the backup point guard who looked every bit the savior the Knicks hoped he'd be when they signed him back in December, before Lin saved them first. Novak is also 6'10'', so getting his shots blocked isn't really an issue.
Novak's first three, on a feed from Carmelo Anthony, brought New York to within 74-72 with 3:53 left in the third quarter. A minute later, his second three gave the Knicks their first lead of the game. And his third three, which gave New York an 82-80 lead at the end of the third quarter—one they wouldn't relinquish—brought the Garden to its feet. So did his threes at the start of the fourth quarter, providing the Knicks with their first two field goals of the final quarter and allowing New York to open up a 90-82 lead, and cruise from there. And his departure with 5:22 to go resulted in an ovation that was almost—almost—Lin-like.
Amazingly, the crowd noise for him when he’s in a game is at this point anticipatory; like when Lin spots a streaking teammate filling the lane, it starts building when Novak comes off of a pick, before he gets the ball.
Novak says he can sense the crowd wanting him to shoot.
“Oh yeah,” Novak said when asked if he can feel that on the court. “It gives me more confidence. When I catch it, there's almost this 'aaaaaaaah,' you know? And then if it goes in, they clap, if you miss, it's 'awwww.' But that first part, that's they want you to shoot it.”
The Knicks certainly want him to keep shooting. Novak got 17 minutes, took nine shots, and averaged 20.8 minutes per game in the month of February, despite a total of zero minutes in the first three games of the month.
“It's definitely been part opportunity,” Novak said of the sudden increase in playing time he’s been given by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni. “I think coach's system, I've known since he was in Phoenix that if I could be in a system like that, it would be good for me. Obviously, looking at [Phoenix Suns point guard] Steve Nash making everybody look good in coach's system—I've always known that would be fun to play in.”
It's hard to know what is more surprising, that someone who’s been a bit player for his first five N.B.A. seasons has so quickly become a rotation regular, or that a player who shoots as well as Novak took so long to stick.