For those still harboring doubts about Jeremy Lin, put them away. He’s the real deal. In helping spearhead another rousing New York Knicks victory Sunday — this time over the defending-champion Dallas Mavericks — the Lin story officially transitioned from novelty act to long-term fact. And it should hit yet another level as soon as Monday night.
The Mavs, winners of six straight, arrived at the Garden as one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Dallas was playing great defense, extraordinarily deep, powered by a rejuvenated Dirk Nowitzki and ready from the start to let defensive guru Shawn Marion have a go at Lin.
And still the Knicks won, 104-97 — and still because Lin answered time and again. He scored 28 points, dished 14 assists and stole the ball five times. He infused his entire team with his own life story: that of the out-of-nowhere nobody who’s suddenly very much a force to be reckoned with.
Like near the end of the third quarter, when the Mavericks had a 12-point lead and looked to be on their way to notching another win and sowing some doubts about the Knicks’ point guard . . . until Lin did what he’s done all along. He willed things to change.
In the final 3:19 of that third quarter, he scored eight points and helped to rob Dallas of its momentum and confidence while cutting its lead to three. In the fourth quarter, Lin had six points and six assists, including enough to Steve Novak that Novak scored all of his 14 points in the final 12 minutes.
As if for effect — as if to say to everyone with his play that he belongs, that he has earned and will continue to earn his sudden and lofty fame — Lin hit a 3-pointer over Dirk with 6:51 left in the game. The shot gave New York a nine-point lead and brought the Garden to a deafening roar. The imagery was red meat for the New York masses, their new hero shooting it over one of the all-time greats, a man with a ring. It was the perfect picture of Lin taking on all comers and winning.
It was more mesmerizing, magical stuff, and it should lay to rest the lingering doubts about Lin’s long-term talent. He can play, he is a winner, and he’s probably going to help this Knicks team be formidable. The Knicks may not be championship contenders yet, but they played like it Sunday.
Lin is the reason.
“The thing you can’t teach is what he has inside his heart,” head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “You just can’t teach that. And he has that. His heart is huge.”
So are the questions going forward, which D’Antoni also knows inside his own heart. These questions are the reason this Knicks story is about to go from phenomenon to downright fascinating.
New arrival J.R. Smith hit three of his first four shots — all 3-balls — on his way to a 15-point night, but he’s still a new player finding his way in the Lin show. And D’Antoni said after the game that injured star Carmelo Anthony probably will play Monday against New Jersey.
“We get ’Melo back tomorrow and Baron (Davis) sometime pretty soon, so obviously we’ll be full here pretty soon,” D’Antoni said.
This is where things get interesting — and positively perplexing.
All along, as Lin’s star his risen and brightened, the doubts have grown in equal proportion about ’Melo’s ability to co-exist with him. It’s too early to start manufacturing outrage at Anthony for destroying this special situation before he’s had a single chance to be part of it.
But it’s true, as D’Antoni said, that it’s about to get pretty full on the Knicks’ bench. And it’s not too early to point out these two facts:
1) With Lin, the Knicks are good enough to win eight of nine games and take down a surging and still dangerous Mavericks team.
2) Throwing in Anthony, one of the five best players in the league, along with Smith and Davis (before Lin, expected to handle the point) should make the team better.
Basketball, as much as any sport, is a strange kind of alchemy. Sometimes what seems great on paper is in fact incredible, a fact to which the Boston Celtics can attest. Sometimes real life takes over and things get harder than you’d expect, a fact to which the Miami Heat and everyone who screamed “72 wins” can also attest.
We’ll soon begin to learn how it will go for New York. Certainly it’s fair to be concerned about ’Melo quickly figuring out how to add to the Knicks’ sudden excellence without disrupting what Lin does. And it is safe to say that Davis, when he came to New York, did not worry about returning from his injury and finding that Jeremy Lin had his job.
“We should be really good,” D’Antoni said. “We have to get there, and it’s easy to say on paper. Our chemistry has to get right, and everybody has to adjust to everybody. So we’ll see. That might not be perfect the first week, but the potential’s there.
“It’s our job as coaches and their job as players to maximize that potential,” he said. “We got a lot of players, so some guys might not play at the end of the game, and somebody might have 10 minutes and somebody may have 30 and just kind of go with the feel. And I’ll mess it up sometimes and play a player (when) I should have played somebody else. But as long as everybody buys in and the most important thing is winning and getting us to our maximum potential, it’s going to be fun.”
That’s a mouthful, and it’s honest, and both are for good reason. D’Antoni knows it’s going to be hard. He sounds like he doesn’t himself know quite how to work his rotation or manage these egos, and how could he? It’s not entirely clear Erik Spoelstra figured those things out in Miami at any point last season.
And D’Antoni sounds, to me, as if he’s asking everyone on his team to look at the big picture — at the fact, if they all do indeed get on board, that the Knicks could be a lot more than just a playoff team.
Jeremy Lin is for real. Now it’s time to find out, once you throw ’Melo into the mix, whether the Knicks are, too.