When the Jeremy Lin joyride finally crashed, it was not because of opposing defenses, scouting reports, ’s ball domination or Mike Woodson’s playbook. As it turned out, a bit of frayed knee cartilage was the culprit.
Arthroscopic knee surgery will probably end Lin’s breakout season, leaving the pretty much where they were two months ago: a jumbled, banged-up mess.
The timing could not be worse, with 13 games left to play, a string of tough matchups ahead and the Knicks (27-26) clinging loosely to a playoff bid.
The Knicks are now missing their best playmaker (Lin) and their second- and third-leading scorers (Amar’e Stoudemire and Lin). Their offense is in the hands of Baron Davis, who turns 33 in two weeks and has a balky back and lifeless legs.
Behind Davis is the same group of backups whose failures nearly sunk the Knicks before Lin seized the point-guard job and saved the season.
The Knicks will be ever more dependent on Anthony, who has repeatedly shown that he is best as a scorer and not an orchestrator. Without Lin and Stoudemire, the offense shifts toward Anthony, Davis and J. R. Smith, three veterans with well-established reputations as high-usage, low-efficiency scorers.
The Knicks still have the ability to score in abundance, a defensive stalwart in Tyson Chandler and ample leadership in Chandler and Stoudemire. What they will be missing, in these critical final four weeks, is that single, unifying force who elevates teammates and inspires the partisan crowds. Lin was that force, a selfless playmaker who was beloved in the locker room and in living rooms.
The Knicks were 8-15 before Lin exploded in that memorable Feb. 4 victory over the Nets. They went 16-10 in his 26 games as the primary point guard, including a 9-2 stretch that was as enjoyable as anything the Knicks have done in years.
Lin’s effect on the offense was noteworthy. Before his emergence, the Knicks averaged 18.9 assists per game, with 55.3 percent of their field goals produced by a pass. During Lin’s run, the Knicks averaged 21 assists a game, with assists on 57.2 percent of their shots. In the four games since Lin went down, those figures have plummeted, to 16.8 assists a game, and an assist rate of 51.5.
Indeed, the Knicks’ identity seems to be in the midst of another seismic shift — from a team that thrived on ball movement and a spread-the-wealth philosophy to a team based on defense first, and a grind-it-out offense in which a handful of players dominate the ball.
In recent games, the Knicks’ offense was often reduced to Anthony dribbling and shooting, Smith dribbling and shooting or Davis dribbling and shooting.
With Lin gone, whatever remained of Mike D’Antoni’s spread-the-floor offense may go with him. This doesn’t mean the Knicks will necessarily be worse off, just drastically different and, to a purist’s eyes, much less aesthetically pleasing.
“It’s definitely going to change,” Chandler said of the Knicks’ personality. “Jeremy brought a tempo to us.” He added, “We’re going to have to play more of a grind style; we got to let our defense lead us.”
Since Lin went down, the Knicks have registered ugly victories over Milwaukee and Cleveland and an ugly loss to Atlanta. (Their rollicking rout of Orlando was hard to quantify because of the Magic’s apparent lack of interest and subsequent reports that their players were partying until 3 a.m. the night before the game.)
It went practically unnoticed, but Lin was also the Knicks’ second most productive free-throw shooter, averaging 6.3 foul shots a game over his 26-game run. Only Anthony (6.7) averages more. Leaguewide, only 10 players average more foul shots per game than Lin did in his seven weeks as the Knicks’ starter.
For all of the persistent doubts about Lin — and they are understandable, given his short résumé — his final statistics are more than respectable.
Lin averaged 18.5 points in 26 games as an everyday player, which would rank seventh among point guards; and 7.6 assists, which would rank 10th. His turnover rate was high (4.5 per game), but it was steadily declining in recent weeks.
At 23, Lin is young, eager and continually improving, with a . The Knicks would be foolish not to re-sign him as a restricted free agent this summer, even if it means using their entire midlevel exception.
Oddly, it is Davis who has more to prove. He is only months removed from a herniated disk that nearly ended his career. He is averaging a modest 8.5 points and 5.5 assists — and 4 turnovers per game — as the starting point guard.
Davis can no longer break down a defense or turn the corner on the pick-and-roll, which makes it hard to create scoring chances for teammates.
Without a steady point guard, the Knicks need Anthony that much more.
Linsanity is sidelined. D’Antoni is gone. For the next four weeks, this is indisputably Anthony’s team. The Knicks can only hope he justifies their faith.