11:45 am Mar. 2, 20122
New York's 120-103 victory over Cleveland on Wednesday night was impressive on many fronts, and was in particular a triumph for the team’s extraordinary second unit. The backups played so well, in fact, that it has become something of a question whether some of them should be backups at all. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Steve Novak, Jared Jeffries: all were excellent.
Making a particularly strong case for himself was Baron Davis, the accomplished point guard currently playing behind Jeremy Lin. The New York Post's Marc Berman went so far as to write: “Can there be a point-guard controversy come April if backup Baron Davis continues to rise and Jeremy Lin’s game flattens out? It is no longer a ‘Linsane’ thought.”
One thing that should be noted, though, after perhaps the first game of the Jeremy Lin era in which he wasn’t the focal point of the fans’ and media’s attention: In terms of point-guard play, while Davis was excellent, Jeremy Lin was even better.
Davis played 15 minutes, scored four points, tallied eight assists, two rebounds and a steal, with no turnovers. Lin, in 33 minutes, put up 19 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, a steal and one turnover.
Considering that the Cavaliers likely spent much of their preparation time focused on how to stop Lin, that much more impressive, particularly given that Lin took nine trips to the free throw line to none for Davis. That's the clearest indication of how much more effectively Lin broke down Cleveland's defense getting to the basket.
Stats never tell the whole story, and Berman looks beyond them to make this point: “Having burgeoning 3-point ace Steve Novak replace struggling Amar’e Stoudemire in the starting lineup is politically incorrect. But not as much as if D’Antoni demotes Lin, whose numbers Wednesday were better than his overall effectiveness vs. Cleveland. With a late burst when the Knicks were in command, Lin finished with 19 points, 13 assists and one turnover. Davis hurt the Cavaliers more than Lin during the Knicks’ second-half comeback with the Fab Five second unit of Novak, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Jared Jeffries.”
But it should also be noted that much of the Knicks' dramatic comeback Wednesday night came on Lin's watch.
New York entered the third quarter trailing 61-49. In that third period, Lin played 10:21 of the 12 minutes, Davis just 1:39. Lin had three points, four assists, no turnovers, and New York went from 12 down to two up. In that stretch, Davis had an assist and a missed shot.
Davis then stayed in to start the fourth quarter, and gave New York some strong minutes as the Knicks pulled ahead for good. Davis had another four assists and a basket before Lin replaced him with five minutes to go in the game. New York led, 101-88, but the game was not quite over yet. It was soon after Lin returned, since he added another six points and four assists with the starting unit as New York pulled away.
Lin’s been this good consistently. In the 13 games he has played since his revelatory performances early last month against the Nets and the Jazz, he's had exactly one poor outing, on Feb. 23 against the Miami Heat. Davis, however, struggled against the Heat as well, putting up an 0-for-7 from the field. Notably, Lin at least got to the free throw line six times in that game; Davis did not get there once.
At some point, the statute of limitations for wonderment over the unlikeliness of the Jeremy Lin scenario has to kick in. Yes, Lin is effectively a rookie, and he came out of nowhere. But he’s 23 years old, it’s a short season, and Lin essentially jumped into it part-way through; there’s no reason in particular to think he can’t hold up for the duration and continue to help his team win.
Granted, Davis is only just regaining his form after a long injury. But he’s nearly a decade older than Lin, played just 58 games last year and barely over a herniated disk. If either of the two point guards is the fragile one, to be protected from the rigors of unnecessary wear and tear, it’s Davis.
One other thing. Lin's play over his first 13 games with regular minutes far exceeds anything Davis has ever done, by one meaningful statistical measure: Davis has never managed an assist rate of more than 42.9 per 100 plays, and he hasn't reached that height since the 2005-06 season; his career mark is 36.4. Lin's assist percentage this season is 47.8.
To be clear, Davis wasn’t brought to New York to be a backup, and to have a point guard of his quality coming off the bench is a luxury the Knicks couldn’t have dreamed of before Lin happened. But for now, there’s no point-guard controversy in sight, and the Knicks would have to be even more self-destructive than usual to think about creating one.
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