NBA fans might not have seen it coming, but no one was surprised after it happened.
Late in the third quarter of their 104-97 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, the Knicks were reeling. They were down 12 points, and Jeremy Lin already had more turnovers in the quarter than he had in the first half. After a disappointing loss to the Hornets on Friday, one had to wonder if the magic in New York was fading and whether the regression to the mean was in full swing for Lin. Even the arrival and debut of J.R. Smith had swung to both extremes, from a ridiculous first quarter in which he seemingly couldn’t miss to an ice cold 3-for-8 from the field.
Then the wave broke, and Dallas was subsumed by the deluge. The Knicks brought in Steve Novak and Smith to flank Lin, who played the entire second half. New York went on a run in the last two and a half minutes of the third to narrow the gap, and Madison Square Garden started to titter at the thought of another Lin-led comeback. The energy in the arena, even 3,000 miles away and beamed into outer space and back, seemed different this time, though. Where previously hope and anticipation had lived, anxious to peak out their heads but weary of being struck down by harsh reality, confidence and expectation now stood. There would be no surprises this time; not against the defending champions, and not with the recent past fresh in everyone’s minds.
And that’s when I knew that Jeremy Lin had truly arrived. Until that point, his career was a giant “Yeah, but.” Yeah, the Knicks were 7-1 with Lin in the lineup, but they were doing it against weak competition. Sure, things were rosy now, with everyone sharing the ball and buying into the team concept, but Amar’e and Carmelo were going to come back soon and ruin everything. Yes, Lin’s numbers have been fantastic, but he has too many turnovers and needs to correct that.* Of course, Lin has been playing incredible basketball, but other players have burned across our field of view like so many shooting stars, only to flame out and come crashing back to earth.
*An argument that I don’t mean to dismiss by including it here. Yes, Jeremy Lin turns the ball over too much. Yes, it’s something he needs to look to fix. There are no “but”s here. He’s playing well. The Knicks are winning. But he could be playing better. No excuses. Play like a champion.
The whole situation, enjoyable as it’s been, always seemed to have an air of inevitability to many. The other shoe would drop, and those who celebrated Lin’s accomplishments would be left eating crow. But on Sunday, Lin and the Knicks seized that foregone conclusion and made it their own. As New York rallied and took the lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the Garden was no longer in a tizzy because they couldn’t believe what was happening in front of them. They were ecstatic because this was what they expected and what they knew their team was capable of. They – we – had seen it happen too many times already to be filled with that giddy energy that comes with being on the edge of one’s seat. This was a confidence usually reserved for champions and contenders, a sense that this was their time and that their squad was best prepared for this scenario.
And the fact that it came against the Mavericks made it all the better. This was a Dallas team that was coming on strong of late, working through their early-season problems to yet again forge an elite defense (3rd in Defensive Rating). They’re the team with the late-game assassin and the championship pedigree, yet here were the Knicks, executing to near-perfection down the stretch. Novak exploded for 14 points in the fourth quarter. Lin had six assists and two crucial steals, and New York fended off a Mavericks run by keeping their composure, getting a couple of big stops and relying on their gameplan.
Lin and the Knicks once again had us shaking our heads on Sunday. This time, though, it was at how routine and predictable they’d made it all seem, rather than out of shock and awe. He’s become another fantastic basketball player, leading his team to victory against one of the better defenses in the league by burying them in the fourth quarter. His story is still as remarkable as it was two weeks ago, but now it’s buttressed by outstanding play, to the point that we’d be downright disappointed if the Knicks had done anything else. And that’s saying something.
This game was just as impressive as those when it was all brand new to us, even if the novelty has worn off. Jeremy Lin and the Knicks are making the extraordinary look routine. Yeah, the Mavs may have had a double-digit lead with 15 minutes left to play. But Lin had his own plans for how the game would end.
Of course he did. Who would expect anything else?