With all due respect to the stumbling and wounded Hawks, Wednesday night’s glorified Knicks practice, in which they blew out Atlanta, 99-82, in what was technically a regular-season game, was just what Linsanity needed to transition into something far more permanent.
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Atlanta was so awful, having now lost eight of its past 11 and without injured All-Stars Joe Johnson and Al Horford, that the Knicks’ rout was a recipe for a little New York bonding, a little chemistry-coming-together time, a little breather before the real tests begin.
Starting, in a very big way, with the biggest test yet: against the Heat on Thursday night in Miami.
“This is a big opportunity to build momentum going into the All-Star Game,” Jeremy Lin said after notching 17 points and nine assists in another fine performance, “ … and a good evaluation of where we’re at.”
Don’t let the final score fool you. The Knicks led 60-35 after the first half in a game that at times seemed simply unfair in its lopsidedness. They drubbed the Hawks the whole way in a choreographed effort that made New York look very much like a team in sync and at ease with its many moving parts.
That is exactly what has to happen for the Knicks to shift from the center of an NBA phenomenon to the home of an NBA contender: They must go from being all about Lin to being about a fully formed and functioning team on which he plays a key role.
Linsanity? Pretty cool. Knicksanity? That would be much cooler — for New York, for NBA fans and for Lin and his legion of supporters and admirers.
Lin has talked repeatedly, as players thrust under the NBA spotlight tend to, about how the whole goal behind his success is winning a championship. After the Dallas game he made a point of saying it was good to beat the champs because that’s who the Knicks hope to emulate.
But that goal, and Lin’s real success, rests more with how well his teammates play. The real reflection of Lin’s emerging greatness will be in how his own remarkable change of fortune does or does not change the fortunes of his too-long underperforming franchise.
For Linsanity to matter, and to last, Jeremy Lin madness has to become a frenzied level of greatness emanating from his team as a whole. The drubbing against Atlanta offered a good start to that goal. Carmelo Anthony scored 15 points and took a couple of smooth passes from Lin in sequences that looked synchronized between two players at ease with each other’s games.
But it wasn’t just ‘Melo, playing in just his second game since Lin emerged as a global celebrity. Amar’e Stoudemire pulled down 10 rebounds, an important stat after getting manhandled in that department by the Nets on Monday. Landry Fields was a flash of energy and efficiency on 7-of-12 shooting for 16 points and seven rebounds. J.R. Smith had 12 points. Steve Novak had five 3-pointers and 17 points. And Baron Davis, also just returned from injury, had six assists in just 14 minutes.
Just the kind of feel-good, come-together night the Knicks could use before stepping in the ring against the Heat, particularly on the front end of a back-to-back, particularly with Miami playing extraordinary basketball, and particularly with LeBron James saying he plans to guard Lin.
“That’s maximum respect if it happens,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Jeremy will handle it and hopefully the Knicks will handle it.”
It’s not just maximum respect. It’s a maximum-sized reminder that Lin and the Knicks are in for everyone’s best shots, and that as the pinnacle of the league, the Heat represent a truer test of and bigger obstacle to what’s going on with Lin and the Knicks than anything else out there.
Team chemistry, as the Heat could tell the Knicks, is a funny and fragile thing.
Play great against a great team — win or lose — and such matters often move in the right direction. But get embarrassed in any way, as the Heat did at times last year, and things can go off the rails rather quickly. They can attest to those times, too.
So this Miami challenge matters. It matters because Miami will throw a level of defense, intensity and athleticism at Lin and the Knicks that few other teams can match; LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers will hound Lin at every step.
It matters because the Knicks, if all the pieces do come together, actually could emerge as a possible title contender — and competitors like Wade who can sniff such rising challengers have a special way of applying foot to neck while still possible.
But it matters more than any other reason because hype matters. Hype cast the Heat on a rocky road last year, hype turned the Los Angeles Clippers into a destination and a team that believes in itself, and hype now fills all the spaces between Lin and his teammates.
Hype, particularly in this country, builds up men and women to unseen heights and tears them down with ferocious unpredictability. It makes stars, heroes, villains, champions, fools — it makes people into the loved and the mocked with equal force.
That is a fact LeBron James knows something about.
The best way to get past hype is to meet it — to transition, in this case, from phenomenon to something more permanent.
Kicking the snot out of Atlanta is a good way to build some chemistry and do some bonding. But it’s using that little bit of progress to either beat, or at least compete with, the Miami Heat that can start to turn Linsanity into something more about the Knicks than about Jeremy Lin.