During the past few games, it has become clear the New York Knicks are going to need more than just a few breakout games from an unheralded point guard to become a force in the Eastern Conference.
But Wednesday night against Cleveland, the Knicks showed their potential is more than just Lin-deep.
Jeremy Lin did his thing against the Cavs, scoring 19 points to go with 13 assists and only one turnover — and one bloody nose — in the Knicks’ 120-103 win.
But it was the play of New York’s bench — led by reserve sharpshooter Steve Novak — that sparked the Knicks to the come-from-behind victory in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd.
New York struggled for much of the early part of the game, falling behind 31-24 after one quarter and — after trailing by as many as 17 points in the second period — taking a 61-49 deficit into the half.
The Cavs, led by Rookie of the Year frontrunner Kyrie Irving, looked faster, crisper and more determined than the rusty Knicks.
But in the third quarter, the Knicks’ D, led by veteran big man Tyson Chandler, buckled down, and Novak — who, along with Lin, has become something of a sensation in the Garden the past three weeks — found his stroke, knocking down three 3-pointers to give New York an improbable 82-80 lead heading into the final period.
Before Wednesday’s game, Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni sounded downright prophetic when he talked about distributing his team’s minutes among his 10 rotation players, including Novak.
“I like to start one way, then mix it up a little bit, then you have a totally different unit, then you mix again and have it the same way you started,” D’Antoni said.
“You’ll have a little bit of everything, but it’ll probably be up to having a feel of the game. If that group that is totally different is going really well, instead of two minutes, maybe they play 10 minutes and they’ll get more time that way. But I think all that will work out.”
A short time later, D’Antoni followed his own prescient advice, went with the hot hand and saw it work to perfection.
With 1:39 left in the third quarter and the score tied at 76-76, D’Antoni sent in Baron Davis and Iman Shumpert to relieve Lin and Carmelo Anthony. Davis and Shumpert joined Novak, J.R. Smith and Jared Jeffries on the floor, and that lineup didn’t check out until the 5:23 mark of the fourth quarter — with the Knicks leading 101-86.
“It’s the last five minutes or six minutes of the game that are the toughest part. Who do you finish with?” D’Antoni asked before the game, not knowing he would answer his own question just a few short hours later.
“That’s where you have to make hard decisions, and some players will have to understand that either they didn’t have it, or it wasn’t the right matchup or this is the way we’re going to go.”
The solution may not present itself so clearly every night, but on this night, D’Antoni’s decision was easy. The Knicks’ reserves combined to shoot 7-of-8 during the first 6:37 of the final quarter as the starters sat on the bench, towels draped over their shoulders, and took it all in.
“That’s big for us,” said Anthony, who had a team-high 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting. “Our bench is a strong part of our success, and tonight it proved that. We’re a very deep team. … I think we’ve done a good job of utilizing all of our assets on our bench. On a given night, it could be anybody.”
The bounce-back performance came at the perfect time for New York, as many were starting to question whether Anthony’s return to the lineup was spoiling the chemistry Lin and the Knicks had developed the past few weeks.
Since Anthony’s return to the Knicks lineup four games ago, Lin’s averages have dropped dramatically, with the second-year phenom averaging 16.3 points on 38.5 percent shooting in those games, down from 25 points on 50.9 percent shooting while Anthony was out. Additionally, the Knicks are just 2-2 since Anthony’s return — this after going 8-1 in the first nine games of the Linsanity Era.
But after struggling mightily last Thursday in Miami, Lin was magnificent again, running the offense with the deftness of a wily veteran and turning the ball over just once in the win.
Lin left the game with 2:36 left in the first quarter with that bloody nose, suffered when Omri Casspi inadvertently smacked him during a battle in the paint. Lin sat on the bench holding a towel to his nose until returning with 8:35 left in the second quarter.
Once Lin returned, Wednesday night’s game suggested that the Knicks, once they truly learn to play with each other, will be just fine.
“Things can be cohesive,” D’Antoni said of his evolving offense after the win. “We just did a good job of sharing the ball, trying to stay wide and keeping our spacing, and every time we did that, good things happened. … It just makes the game a little easier.”
Still, though, there’s room for improvement, and the Knicks know that. For everything they did right in the second half Wednesday, there was just as much that went wrong with the first.
For two quarters, New York looked utterly outclassed by a Cavs team that dropped to 13-20 with the loss. Against teams such as Miami and Chicago — teams the Knicks are sure to meet in the playoffs — that kind of slow start will be akin to digging their own proverbial grave.
“Tonight we showed some patience and some hard work, but at times we showed that we still need some work,” Davis said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
But having the luxury of two All-Star caliber players, two of the league’s most raved-about up-and-comers and a deep bench that can win a game on its own will definitely come in handy, even against the most fearsome opponents.
“There’s no drop-off,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t know that my 10th or 11th guy isn’t better than my third guy. It might not always play out that way, but right now, today, I’m thinking my 11th guy is almost as good as anybody we’ve got.
“To be honest, the last couple days in practice, the (reserves) have kicked the first group’s butt. It wasn’t different (tonight). They’ve been playing that way. Guys just have to understand their roles and understand that some night’s they’ll have it, and some nights they won’t play. … They’re going to have to embrace the team concept and cheer for the guys that are out there.”
At one point late in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, after Novak and the rest of the Knicks reserves had reassumed their usual positions on the bench, a “We want Novak” chant broke out among the MSG faithful. The New York starters, following their coach’s advice, made the most of it.
“It’s cool to hear that kind of thing; all the guys were like, ‘Novak, you hear that?’ ” Novak said.
But at the end of the day, the main attraction in New York is still Lin, and it will be as long as the Knicks keep winning, especially in the playoffs — an assertion that, once laughable, seems very possible now.
“There’s only one Linsanity, and he’s over there,” Novak said, motioning toward New York’s newest superstar. “I can’t compete with that.”