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Jeremy Lin: the oil that makes Mike D’Antoni’s engine run

For weeks, Knicks fans have been sold the idea that crocked point guard Baron Davis was the saviour, the facilitator who would grease the wheels of the stagnant New York offence.

The Madison Square Garden faithful clung to this belief more in hope than in expectation until two nights of Linsanity breathed genuine life into the world’s most famous arena for the first time in this truncated season.

When Jeremy Lin came off the bench against the Nets to make a game-winning 25-point contribution, the Garden crowd erupted for a career performance most thought would be an aberration.

But three nights later, making his first NBA start, Lin did it again with a 28-point, eight assist performance that prompted “MVP” chants as a severely depleted Knicks line-up put the Utah Jazz to the sword.

It turns out Mike D’Antoni was right after all. All he needed was a competent point guard, a facilitator, a provider for his much-vaunted offence to regain its flow. But it was the athletic, intelligent and daring Lin, not Davis, who made the Knicks look like a basketball team again.

Pick and roll

There’s a little Steve Nash in Jeremy Lin, particularly the mazy dribbles into the lane and the ludicrous but effective scoop shots. In terms of shooting, court vision and passing, Lin isn’t in the same league of course. But he’s quick and plays better defence than everyone’s favourite Canadian.

But the crucial thing is this: Lin is the only active member of this Knicks roster able to execute a competent pick and roll. And execute it he did. And lo and behold, the D’Antoni offence – where everything starts with the pick and roll – started to click.

Even better, with Lin attacking the hoop and the Jazz defence collapsing, kick out passes found open shooters. Shooters set to take proper three-point shots, the absolute antithesis of Melo jacking it up from downtown while his teammates stand around watching.

Suddenly, even the depths of the Knicks bench started to make sense. Who else would you prefer to have waiting in the corner to drain an open three than dead-eyed long range marksman Steve Novak? OK, Ray Allen would be better but you get the point.

Team ball > heroball

What do we make of the fact that the Knicks best performance of the season came with Amare Stoudemire absent and Carmelo Anthony limping off the court after five minutes of the game?

First up, no one in their right mind could seriously suggest the Knicks are better without their two biggest stars. But what the Jazz performance does do is challenge both players. If Lin, Tyson Chandler, Novak, Fields, Iman Shumpert and Billy Walker can make this offence work, why would you not buy into it?

In fairness to Amare, you’d guess he’d been crying out for the emergence of a point guard to get his game back on track. He needs the pick and roll in order to be at his devastating best.

But for Melo, the Lin-powered defeat of the Jazz is far more important. It screams at him: “Look how much better we are when the ball actually moves, teamball beats heroball, join us”.

Seriously, how refreshing was it to watch a Knicks game where the words ‘stagnant’ and ‘futile’ weren’t used by Clyde and Mike Breen?

Jared Jeffries

If you’ve read my musings on the Knicks before, you’ll know I am something of a Jeffries apologist. At times, his limitations are so obvious that he makes you feel genuine pity.

But he always plays with heart. He somehow ignores 15,000 people groaning ‘Oh no’ when he raises up for a jump shot. He’s never slow to put his body on the line. He’s the garbageman’s garbageman. For my sins, I can’t help but like the guy.

The key to liking Jeffries is accepting his limitations. He already has, so why can’t you? Once you’ve managed to do that, it becomes easier to like him. Against the Jazz, he not only hustled, played defence and took five – count ‘em – charges, he made some jumpers and hooked up on some nice plays with Fields.

But above all, on a night where two all stars were missing and Chandler was glued to the bench with foul trouble, he provided genuine leadership. The sight of JJ leading a huddle with the inexperienced Lin, Fields, Shump and Novak was funny at first until you realised he was helping to galvanise this team.

Jeffries performance was nothing short of heroic against the Jazz – playing through injury and taking responsibility for the hard yards that helped the Knicks claim the win. He fully deserved every high five he got from the New York Giants players at courtside.

All Lin the game

Despite Jeffries understated heroics and, when he eventually was able to stay off the bench for more than a couple of minutes, Chandler’s defensive plays that helped secure the win in the fourth quarter, there’s no doubt the real story is the emergence of Lin.

Can it continue? Until Davis is healthy enough to play, there’s no reason why not.

Lin’s game is perfectly suited to the offence D’Antoni wants the Knicks to run. For reasons only Knicks personnel managers will know, there are no other healthy guards able to run pick and roll. So Lin’s mistakes and turnovers will not see him benched..

As Chandler noted after the win, Lin’s presence on court puts everyone else in their correct positions. With Lin on the court, none of the other players are being asked to do things they aren’t accustomed to doing.

Best of all, Lin’s two performances have made the Garden the raucous, amplified and intimidating arena that it’s supposed to be. The toxic environment, created by the turgid offensive displays that were becoming depressingly standard, is gone.

In Jeremy Lin, Mike D’Antoni may just have found the oil the makes the engine run.

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Filed under amare stoudemire, Basketball, carmelo anthony, jeremy lin, landry fields, nba, New York Knicks

New season, same old problems for the New York Knicks

The diagnosis nine games into the season? No defence; bullied on the boards; prone to turnovers and making boneheaded plays at vital moments; a oft-stagnating offence with an over-reliance on the three-ball. Welcome to the 2010/11 New York Knicks – a roster of new players seemingly afflicted with exactly the same problems as last year’s vintage.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not if you believed the hype. Upgrades at point guard and power forward. Young players with another year of experience under their belt. A player able to defend multiple positions with limitless upside. Oh yes, and a coach finally with the players he wanted at his disposal.

But instead of revelling in a new look team and their obvious playoff potential, these early season Knicks performances bear an awful similarity to the dross served up in Madison Square Garden over the last 18 months or so.

Opposing players enjoying record-breaking nights courtesy of an uncommitted and porous defence. Bad shooters jacking up 25 plus threes every night and (apart from in Chicago) missing most of them. And, worst of all, an inability to make plays when they matter most – in the final moments of a game.

Face it, if you heard Kevin Love had recorded the NBA’s first 30 point, 30 board game in 28 years but didn’t know the schedule well enough to know who Minnesota’s opponents were, would it have taken you more than two guesses to identify the rebound-allergic Knicks as the team on the receiving end?

Let’s try another. If you were told an NBA team’s first three home losses of the season each came in games in which they held the lead with less than five minutes left, how long would it take you to identify the hapless team in question as the New York Knicks. Yeah, thought so.

This particular statistic is the reality for anyone happy that, unlike last year, the Knicks “are in every game they play”. Last time I checked, the standings don’t have a column for ‘moral victories’. And losing, it seems, is a harder habit to break than the off-season optimism suggested.

I won’t pretend I haven’t been scarred by the turgid performances on the road at Minnesota and Milwaukee. But not to the point where I’ve been blinded to (the admittedly few) positives the Knicks have shown to this point.

So here’s another question. If the San Antonio Spurs had drafted Landry Fields in the second round and the young rookie had earned a place as a starter with his characteristcally efficient play, how long would it take the NBA cogniscenti to hail Gregg Popovich a genius once again?

Fields looks to be an excellent all-round player. He’s athletic, he’s selective and (apart from fouling three point shooters) he’s intelligent. His consistency is at odds with the hot and cold nature of the Knicks but his willingness to do the little things well at least provides Mike D’Antoni with a bona fide building block in his starting five.

Another plus point has been the presence of Rony Turiaf. I say presence, rather than play, because the Frenchman’s court time has been limited by injury. Is there any other layer in this league who so obviously enjoys the succcess of his team mates as much as Turiaf?

That might seem like an insignificant thing but, during a long season with as many ups and downs as the Knicks are bound to have, a locker room presence as strong as that provided by Turiaf could be crucial to team harmony.

And don’t think I didn’t notice his on-court contributions helping the Knicks to become the league’s leading shot blocking team. Yes, it hasn’t actually made any major difference in terms of wins but after what seemed like a block-free 2009/10 season, seeing some regular swats is a welcome sight.

Not that Fields or the injured Turiaf could do anything to stop the Knicks sliding to four successive losses after a decent 3-2 start. The buck stops with Mike D’Antoni.

Even if he hadn’t coached Amare Stoudemire for five years in Phoenix, you’d think acquiring a $100 million player would mean you’d have some idea of how best to use his talents. Stoudemire is at his best in the pick and roll or in the high post. He needs the ball on the move or with space to work. Dumping the ball down to him in the low post where he is STAT-ic absolutely kills the Knicks.

If Amare has no room to work, the ball invariably ends up being passed around the perimeter before a poor trey is launched at the basket. The result? The offensive stagnation that has blighted the Knicks for full quarters at a time in virtually every game they have played. No wonder teams have started to employ the zone against them.

Stoudemire’s problems have also led to him leading the league in turnovers. Dribbling balls off his feet and throwing ridiculous passes when faced with defensive pressure is one reason. The failure of Stoudemire and Raymond Felton to click in the pick and roll is the other. D’Antoni must know Stoudemire is at his best in the pick and roll. Why this wasn’t made a point of emphasis in pre-season fails me.

Felton is a tough and solid player and I expected him and Amare to click on the pick and roll right away. I mean, even Chris Duhon was able to do this with David Lee. This play should be the Knicks’ biggest weapon and, right now, their principal players can’t run it consistently well. And without it, shooters like Danilo Gallinari struggle to get into the game.

D’Antoni’s “we’re working on it, it’ll get better” mantra isn’t providing much comfort. From memory, both Fields and Gallo have hooked up Stoudemire in the pick and roll at points – maybe that’s the way forward, especially in the closing minutes of games – if Felton can’t get it done.

Ultimately, the Knicks offence remains an undeniable mess. And D’Antoni, the once universally acknowledged offensive genius, can’t deny it. He has the ‘athletic’ players he wanted to implement his schemes – there are no excuses.

With nine games played, there’s obviously lots of time to rectify what has turned into a disappointing start. Making a desperation move for the freshly divorced Steve Nash isn’t going to do it. It’s down to the coach. D’Antoni has to do a better job – starting tonight at home against Houston.

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