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?
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.