I’ve finally given up on trying to avoid the Lin-Sanity craze sweeping the NBA, and today TheSportsNotebook is going to take a closer look at the New York Knicks hot streak behind their new point guard Jeremy Lin. Is it the real thing? Is it a contrived media story because Lin’s in New York? Is it a mix of both? We’ll dive into the Knicks, looking first at their overall team profile and then what’s been different during the Lin-driven seven-game win streak.
New York is a team that wins with its offense, a fact not readily apparent when you just glance at the point averages. They’re 13th in both points scored and allowed, but if you use the offensive and defensive efficiency rankings, which adjust for tempo, you find New York is an upper-crust offensive team and a subpar defensive one. Rebounding is a huge problem, when they’re one of the worst in the NBA.
When you look at the team’s personnel the impression that, pre-Lin, this was a club basically defined by Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudamire at the forward spots, is essentially accurate. Tyson Chandler was the next-best player at center, a double-double man each night, but the backcourt was a big problem. Prior to the recent win streak, they had no one who could hit three-point shots with any consistency and the backcourt in general was a mess.
Just looking at the team overall, we can already understand why Lin was able to make such an immediate impact. He was stepping into a lineup which had a huge hole at point guard. When Anthony and Stoudamire both missed time with nagging injuries, the opportunity existed for Lin to step up and score.
When February began, the Knicks lost close games to Chicago and Boston, the first at home to a Bulls team missing Luol Deng, and then on the road in the Garden (for the record, Boston’s arena is the only one on this site to be referred to as “The Garden”. New York’s home is referenced as “MSG”). The team played well in Boston, before losing by two. Then the ascent began.
Lin stepped into the lineup at home against the Nets and the team won 99-92 because they beat Jersey to the boards. While Lin scored 25, give kudos to Jared Jeffries who came off the bench for ten rebounds. Up next was a home win over Utah, where the Knicks found the range from treyland—specifically throw 6’10” forward Steve Novak who came off the bench and nailed five. Novak did the same thing in Washington, again giving the Knicks a big edge from behind the arc. Through it all, Lin continued to get 20-plus a night.
That set up a Friday night in MSG against the Lakers. The opponent was coming off a one-point win the Garden a night earlier, but Kobe Bryant still had a 34 point/10 rebound night. Lin answered with a 38-point blitzing that effectively carried New York to a win.
Consecutive road wins In Minnesota and Toronto followed. Lin got his 20-plus each game, but don’t overlook that Novak nailed four treys in the two-point win over the Wolves, while Stoudamire came back and got a 21/9 in Toronto. Last night in a home win over Sacramento, Lin toned down the scoring, but dished thirteen assists, and Novak scored 14 off the bench.
While Lin is obviously the driving force behind this win streak, let’s not overlook Novak. Like the new point guard, Novak has stepped into an area that was previously barren—three-points shooting—and given the team a sudden burst of production. Let’s also not overlook how friendly the schedule has been during the whole time, with a tired Laker team being the best opposition and the top teams after that being Utah and Minnesota. If you believe in the Knicks, are you comfortable with continuing to rely on Novak to provide your three-point production? Because there’s no one else with an outside shot worthy of the name. The best after that is Bill Walker, whose 33 percent from behind the arc make him good enough to want to take shots from better players, not good enough to be a real force. If you want outside shooting, it’s Novak or make a trade.
That’s the skeptic in me, which can’t get past the understated role Novak has played, along with the schedule. The believer in me looks at the Laker game and sees something beyond the surface. In his fine book The Book Of Basketball, Bill Simmons talks about the “alpha-dog” factor in looking at NBA stars. Was this the kind of player that if you were picking teams on the playground you would feel compelled to choose, if only because you didn’t want to tick him off. Lin stepping it up with 38 against the Lakers for a Friday night ESPN audience suggests an alpha-dog quality.
So what to make of it all? I think Lin’s emergence into the point guard spot is real enough to pass the first test—which is that New York is now indisputably better than Milwaukee or Cleveland and that as of February 16 we know who the eight playoff teams in the East will be. Does Lin make New York better than Boston or Indiana, who stand in their way of the #6 seed and avoiding Chicago/Miami in the first round? Does Lin make New York good enough to win a first-round series against the likes of a Philadelphia? Does Lin make New York good enough to stand toe-to-toe with the Bulls or Heat in the spring?
I think the answer to the first question is yes and the second answer is probably. Ultimately it depends less on Lin than on Anthony, and how well the injured star meshes in the new lineup when he gets back, which could be tomorrow against New Orleans. If all goes well, New York absolutely can first move up to #6 and then knock somebody off in a playoff series.
As to the Chicago/Miami question, I don’t want to get carried away, but I think there’s at least a one-in-three shot that New York could stand at least toe-to-toe with the heavyweights—as in take a series a minimum of six games, while splitting the first four, effectively making it a competitive series. Why not? They have legit star power in Melo and Stoudamire, they’ve got as shotblocker and rebounder in Chandler and now they have a point guard.
Lin doesn’t need to score 20 a night once Anthony is back. He just needs to dish the assists. I think he can do that. So I guess, in spite of my reluctance to get on a New York-media craze, I guess I’m a believer.