Knicks still flawed, still feasible

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start pretending the New York Knicks are the deadliest threat to the Miami Heat’s Eastern Conference hopes. Let’s stick for now with what we know for sure.

This latest phase of Knicks Mania has an exponentially higher probability of lasting than Linsanity for one simple reason: It’s based on team play rather than the sensational but often fleeting power of a phenomenon.

The Knicks’ on-again, off-again season has been a journey of drama, angst, promise and disappointment. They were first a star-studded team flopping as only the Knicks can flop, a high-profile team dragging behind them a streak that included having lost 11 of 13 games when no-name Jeremy Lin got his opportunity. Boom. Suddenly they were off and running, winning seven in a row, directing the gaze of America back in their direction and offering up a view of a team without superstar Carmelo Anthony that was the picture of glory — the buzz, the buzzer-beaters, the winning, the adulation, the Linsanity celebrated and talked about everywhere.

And then, the fall.

‘Melo returned, the team struggled, Linsanity came to a crashing end (including a humiliation in Miami in which Lin looked more like an overmatched middle-school student than a worldwide phenomenon) that culminated in a March in which New York lost its first six games and head coach Mike D’Antoni got the ax.

It was typical phenomenon stuff: the rise, the hype, the hope, the glory and the fall. But sometimes, though not often, phenomenon fades into a serviceable to very good state of being that equals winning, if not absolute adulation. That’s just where the Knicks are right now. No strangely intoxicating power of phenomenon, true, but no morning hangover, either.

Under current head coach Mike Woodson the team won five in a row. But what’s most promising about their recent play, including three wins over playoff-bound teams including Indiana and Philadelphia, is there is nothing particularly remarkable about it beyond the winning. No Linsanity. No magic coaching dust spread into the mix — just more isolation plays and a stronger focus on defense. Hell, we still haven’t seen the superstar version of ‘Melo, who’s still shooting under 40 percent and having one of the worst years of his professional career.

All of which is exactly why this Knicks thing might last.

Phenomenons are remarkable, they’re fun, they remind us of what’s fantastic (and later, fleeting) in sports. While they last, they get the juices flowing for fans and the sport alike.

Tiger Woods was the exception — the phenomenon that lived up to the hype — until, of course, his rise of once-in-a-generation excellence ended so abruptly.

Michelle Wie was so good she was going to win on the men’s tour. Until the phenomenon faded and reality set in — not a single LPGA major to her name and just two LPGA Tour wins.

Tim Tebow was (is?) the outside-the-box quarterback who could change the NFL by redefining what a QB needs to be through the sheer intangible of being a winner. He was John Elway’s guy, too, the toast of Denver — until Elway traded him this week to the New York Jets as presumably a backup.

Dan and Dave were going to redefine the Olympics — until Dan failed to quality for those Olympics.

And Dice-K, the Japanese pitching import, was going to set Major League Baseball ablaze with his game-changing skill and a pitch that probably doesn’t exist. Instead, in his debut season in 2007, Daisuke Matsuzaka went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA.

Very serviceable. The kind of stats that’ll allow one to have a nice career if not a lasting legacy of utter excellence and legend. Very much the sort of season that lets a phenomenon’s mercurial rise fade calmly and with some measured accomplishment — an easing off that avoids the sudden, humiliating thought that this person is destined to be as celebrated a failure as they were a prospect for greatness.

So what happened to Dice-K that first season in America? He and the Boston Red Sox, the team that coughed up all that money for him, won the World Series. Not because Dice-K was a phenomenon but because he was a fine piece given what they needed. They had him playing well, yes, but they also had a great ballclub. They were more than the mania, much more.

This is what the Knicks should hope for, that Linsanity has given way to a Jeremy Lin who is very good, who fits a role and who, as part of the larger puzzle, can help his team toward a championship level.

A team led by Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak isn’t likely to beat the Miami Heat in a seven-game series, nor challenge any time soon for an NBA championship. Could that team be so-so and support the growing hype of a guy like Lin? Could that team keep proving that, given the right circumstances, Lin could be superstar in the NBA even if he’s on a team unlikely to challenge for NBA supremacy? Yes, probably. But to move past the mania and get toward the team the phenomenon has to give way to a kind of measured excellence.

That’s where these Knicks might be, if this honeymoon period for Woodson holds. They are packed with two stars (‘Melo and Amare Stoudemire), a defensive expert and one of the league’s most proficient scorers (Tyson Chandler), a good point guard who can be clutch when called on (Lin) and some role players who can do real damage (Novak, JR Smith).

During their recent win streak, Lin averaged 14.8 points and 6.0 assists per game. If ‘Melo can find his inner star, if the changes in Woodson’s leadership hold after the honeymoon period fades and if this team keeps playing more like a team than passengers on a ship of hype powered by Linsanity (or, more recently, a ship of awkward discomfort powered by Carmelo Anthony) maybe the Knicks get dangerous.

They’re the No. 8 seed, yes, and their record isn’t exactly the stuff of champions. But it’s still a team with talent and, at times, one with a penchant for good and gutsy wins.

Linsanity is over, and as with Tebow, we’re still waiting to see how the story ends for the guy who spurred all the hype. Dice-K faded to a fine but not remarkable level that concluded with a World Series. Michelle Wie watched her star burn up and in the aftermath was left without even a single achievement worthy of an iota of the celebration bestowed on her.

The road ahead is clear. Lin needs to be the right part, to keep playing between well and great and to be on a team that becomes a unit of winners instead of a group along for the fading if fantastic ride of a phenomenon — and the crash that often accompanies it.

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