To Linsanity and Beyond

And on the 21st Day, Jeremy Lin rested.

Three weeks of Linsanity were finally over after his last appearance for the NBA at All-Star Weekend in Orlando. Lin took a day to himself — spent with his family far away from the crowds that surrounded him and the NBA officials who pulled him in four different directions — to catch his breath before the real frenzy begins.

The Knicks (17-18) have 31 games left in the regular season and the mission is simple for both the player and the team: steadily improve and peak in time for the playoffs. From here on out, it should no longer be about Linsanity. For this to become something more than just a novelty, more than just a fad or a sensation, it has to be more.

“I think hopefully as the season progresses,” Lin said over the weekend, “it will go from that to New York Knicks . . . and people will start talking about the Knicks and not necessarily me.”

And that doesn’t mean talking more about Carmelo Anthony, which is what Melo’s fellow all-stars, such as Chris Paul and LeBron James, tried to do in defense of their rat pack buddy. Paul emphasized that Melo is still the star of the Knicks and LeBron went out of his way to point out that “Melo played great” in the all-star game.

Anthony was hardly great, relative to MVP Kevin Durant and other candidates, such as LeBron, himself, but he was good. He had 19 points and nine rebounds in 30:20 and was 7-for-15 from the field. He was 0-for-3 from downtown, however, which remains the most notable trouble spot for him since returning from the ankle and wrist sprains.

Melo faced the music all weekend, starting with an appearance on ESPN’s First Take, in which he intelligently sidestepped the opportunity to offer up woe-is-me rhetoric about the skepticism he’s facing in New York right now. Instead, Melo confirmed his belief that this team is his best shot at a championship.

Amar’e Stoudemire, the forgotten star who had a forgettable first half of the season, left for All-Star break telling reporters that in order for the team to have success, players will need to sacrifice individual accolades. But that doesn’t mean players should stop being who they are.

As we discussed in the previous Fix, this is a critical week ahead, one that will afford the team four full practices (starting Tuesday due to CBA restrictions) to prepare for a challenging month of March. The Knicks need to find themselves this week, find the chemistry that will spur this team to achieve something beyond a mid-season novelty and a nice feel-good story.

Yes, Linsanity has come to an end. Reality begins.

SLAMMING IDEA WAS NOT TO BE

This year’s Slam Dunk contest was loaded with relative unknowns, but had moments of potential — Paul George’s glow dunk was outstanding — for an otherwise underwhemling overall show. The lack of a clear standout winner, however, suggests that Knicks rookie Iman Shumpert might have had a chance to take the title if he didn’t have to withdraw with knee tendonitis.

Lin revealed one of Shumpert’s dunk ideas that surely would have had people talking.

“We actually had a sweet idea, Iman came up with,” Lin said. “Landry was going to roll a couch out with a cover over it, I was going to be sleeping underneath it and then we were going to pull the cover, I was going to throw to Iman an alley-oop from the couch and he was going to jump over both me and the couch, windmill it and then sit down and have Landry hand him a Sprite.”

STEREOTYPES SKEW SCOUTING

While meeting the national media during All-Star Weekend in Orlando, Lin acknowledged one of the most obvious — yet sensitive — reasons why he had been overlooked so often throughout the early part of his career:

“I think just being Asian-American, obviously when you look at me, I’m going to have to prove myself more so again and again and again, and some people may not believe it,” Lin said.

“I know a lot of people say I’m deceptively athletic and deceptively quick, and I’m not sure what’s deceptive,” Lin then added. “But it could be the fact that I’m Asian-American. But I think that’s fine. It’s something I embrace and it gives me a chip on my shoulder. But I’m very proud to be Asian-American and I love it.”

MID-SEASON MINICAMP

With just one game this week — Wednesday against the Cavaliers at the Garden — Mike D’Antoni’s plan is to run a week’s worth of practices similar to how he’d handle training camp. There will be a great emphasis on offense and developing a system for not just the starting five, but also for the bench players. The team doesn’t play again until Sunday afternoon against the Celtics.

MEDICAL UPDATES

The Knicks released updates on the three injured players. For starters, forward Josh Harrellson, who has been out since Jan. 21 with a fractured right wrist has been cleared to practice. He will be on the court with the team when official practice may resume on Tuesday at MSG Training Center. Harrellson adds even more depth to the bench, especially in the front court.

Shumpert, who missed the last three games before the All-Star break and withdrew from the Slam Dunk contest with knee tendinitis, is cleared to practice but on a “limited basis,” according to the team.

Bill Walker, who has missed the last four games, remains out with a sore left elbow.

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The Necessary Evil

Here is where it gets interesting, what we’ve all been waiting for:

The confluence of Linsanity and StoudeMelo, the latter of which is celebrating its one-year anniversary today.

The work-in-progress finally can get under way, as long as there are no more injuries, no more trades and no more surprises. Though Knicks fans are notorious for being down with OPP (other people’s players), it’s time finally to leave this roster alone and see what it can become.

The players are ready for this. The question is, after years of waiting, are the fans?

“Comin together is the beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success,” Melo said in a poignant tweet on Tuesday afternoon, quoting American auto pioneer Henry Ford.

What we saw in the first quarter of Monday’s loss to the Nets is the potential for this offense, with Lin running the show and Melo‘s playmaking skills (six assists) complimenting the point guard. What we’ve yet to see is how Melo’s ability as an elite scorer will work, mainly because Melo isn’t Melo yet. Not in his first game back after missing two weeks with a groin injury.

With no practice time, this had to be the game for him to “come out and get the rust off me a little bit.” So, no, it wasn’t pretty with just 11 points on 11 shots and a few uncharacteristic misses at the rim.

Lin wasn’t himself, either, though he still hit for 21 points and nine assists before he fouled out. Amar’e Stoudemire, the other piece in this puzzle, still remains somewhat of an anomaly with his noticeable lack of explosion at the rim and 14 blocks against in his last eight games.

Then there is J.R. Smith, a scoring force off the bench who has yet to have a practice with his new team, andBaron Davis, who made his debut on Monday and showed he, too, needs a lot more time to get his legs under him.

As the Knicks reach the midpoint of this lockout-shortened season, they still have a lot of work to do.

“We have to get some things sorted out and we know that,” Mike D’Antoni said. “We have to figure out the type of team and the identity we have to have.”

Identity might be the most important issue to solve over the next two weeks. With Lin, the Knicks ran D’Antoni’s famed Seven Seconds or Less offense with great success, as three-point specialist Steve Novak and pick-and-roll big man Tyson Chandler emerged as major contributors. But with Carmelo and Amar’e, the lineup has a different look and, as a result, the system must be adjusted.

But should the system be adjusted to Melo and Amar’e or should they adjust to the system?

“Any time you have three new players, people coming back, your identity as a team is going to change with the personnel,” Lin said. “We are not in panic mode because it is not like people show up and you have great chemistry. We have to work through some struggles. But as long as we are committed, we will be fine.”

The commitment has been there all season and the schedule now affords something very few teams will get after the All-Star break: a full week with only one game. Imagine that in a truncated season with games squeezed together.

The Knicks return from the break with a home game against the Cavaliers on Wednesday, Feb. 29. Their next game isn’t until Sunday, March 4, at Boston. That leaves six days of practice around that Cavs game to hold a mini training camp with all hands on deck.

That’s right, the entire roster should be available, including Josh Harrellson (broken wrist). It’ll be something to watch the scrimmages now, with a second unit of Davis, Smith, Shumpert, Harrellson and Jeffries — not to mention Novak — taking on Lin, Landry Fields, Melo, Amar’e and Tyson.

It’ll be something to see what D’Antoni comes up with as an offensive mindset, too. How to best utilize the collective talent. The Knicks spent the two-week training camp focusing almost exclusively on defense. Next week, the Knicks should focus entirely on offense.

They should emerge for that game in Boston with an identity that will carry them through what will be an extremely challenging month of March, when they will pay for that week off with 17 games in 27 days. And those games bring some heavy hitters, from the Celtics, to the Mavs and the Spurs and the 76ers and Bulls, plus a back-to-back, home-and-home with the Pacers. All of this by St. Patrick’s Day.

This is going to take some fortitude. And some of you, based on your volatility on Twitter, may not have the stomach for it.

Even through the worst of times, in the days before Linsanity, there was never a sense of surrender within the group. The defense has steadily improved, though it has moments where it falls into bad habits. And it is impossible to overlook Stoudemire’s issues at that end of the floor, which needs to be addressed.

The loss to the Nets, however, much like the loss to the Hornets on Friday, wasn’t about defense, unless you want to go with the idea that had Iman Shumpert (knee tendonitis) played, Deron Williams wouldn’t have gone off for a career-high eight three-pointers. Let’s just say D-Will was unstoppable for a night. But that alone shouldn’t have been impossible to overcome.

No, the Knicks offense failed them in both losses. They managed just 85 points against New Orleans and missed 10 free throws and 20 three-pointers, which is as far as you need to go when dissecting that loss. Against the Nets, there were more shooting woes from downtown (5-for-21), as several open looks and more than a few layups missed the target.

Sometimes, yes, the difference between a win and a loss is the simple imbalance of makes and misses on open looks. Missed jumpers are like a pin to a balloon. But the Knicks never do seem to get completely deflated. When was the last time they looked “defeated” when things weren’t going well? They fought back for wins over the Timberwolves and Raptors and even on frustrating nights against the Hornets and Nets, they still had a shot at it down the stretch.

When watching and analyzing this team over these next few games, don’t just search for the problems. Search for the promise, too.

“Like Coach said, there’s going to be a little bit of adjustment time,” Lin said, “things to sort out, things to talk about, find out where we want to go from here. It is Day One and obviously we’re not happy with Day One, but sometimes you have to go through tough times as a team.”

And as a fan, you have to go through them, too.

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Finally, a Winter of Our Content?

The crowd that gathered in the Madison Square Garden lobby was enormous and the excitement in the air had the energy of a revival meeting. There was that distinct Garden buzz again. There was a palpable sense of anticipation.

What were these people waiting for? This was between games on a busy day at MSG, which was going through the quick transformation from a basketball court to a hockey rink; from the giddy Knicks win over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks to a game between the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

But why was everyone hanging around here? Don’t they know the players don’t exit and enter through the lobby?

Still they stood and stared in a large circle around barricades, parents and children, staring with wide eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of something magical. And then, he appeared.

Jeremy Lin? No.

Elmo.

So, OK, not everyone is caught up in Linsanity. Jeremy’s had a heck of a run, but let’s face it, Elmo’s gotJordanesque longevity. And he’s packing the Theatre right now.

Still, there is something different about the Garden over the last two weeks, and it’s not just the newness of Phase I of the Transformation. There’s an energy that filled the arena with nearly 40,000 fans in one day that hasn’t been felt in a very, very long time.

Today, New York’s baseball teams are tossing the ball in Florida. For far too long, the official reporting day for pitchers and catchers was counted down like Christmas. The arrival of baseball creates a sense of hope; a sense of relief that a cold, long winter’s end is finally near. And let’s face it, there have been some long, cold winters at the Garden over the last decade.

This year, however, winter hasn’t been so harsh. In fact, it’s been mild. We’re supposed to hit 60 degrees in New York City this week. Meanwhile, after the Giants‘ memorable Super Bowl run, the Knicks and Rangers have kept the city on fire through February.

Linsanity started the night before the Giants’ win in Indianapolis, when he emerged from the bench to spark a desperately-needed win over the Nets. We come full circle tonight at the Garden, as Deron Williams and the Nets return. And Carmelo Anthony may return, as well.

The Rangers have dominated the East in the NHL with Hart-caliber effort by goalie Henrik Lundqvist (“Lund-sanity“, anyone?) and nightly heart and soul efforts by John Tortorella‘s skaters.

And so here we are, as the Yankees and Mets set to draw your attention away, with the Knicks and Rangers aiming to party like it’s 1994. Last season the two Garden teams made the playoffs in the same season for the first time since 1997. This season there should be loftier goals.

This season, winter may last deeper into spring.

FIXINS

• Jeremy Lin’s 14 assists against the Mavericks were a career-high, which is the third time in four games that he has built on career-best totals in assists. He also had a career-high five steals in the game, which is one better than Friday’s game against the Hornets.

Lin, who also had 28 points, has had at least 20 points and 10 assists three times in his seven starts and has recorded a double-double four times in that span. He’s scored at least 20 points in eight of his last nine games.

The turnovers (seven against Dallas) remain the most glaring issue, but his effectiveness is undeniable. Lin has raised his season numbers to where he ranks among the league’s best in PER (player efficiency rating) at 24.2 (would rank 7th), Usage % (amount team’s offense runs through him when he’s in the game) at 31.3 (would rank 6th) and Assist % (scores off his passes when he’s in the game) at 50 (would rank 2nd behind Steve Nash).

• Best part of J.R. Smith‘s homecoming game on Sunday is that he spent the night at his mother’s house in New Jersey (he just got in Saturday night and still has to find a place of his own). A close second is what Mike D’Antoni revealed after the win over Dallas, in which Smith scored 15 points off the bench: the team didn’t run any plays when he was in the game. Smith has yet to practice with the team, so he didn’t know any plays. So D’Antoni told the group to “just play basketball.”

• Tyson Chandler had several hard falls in Sunday’s game and came away banged up. He did finish the game, however, and seemed fine in the locker room afterwards. The team took precautionary X-rays on both wrists and his lower back and found no damage. But he will be re-evaluated before tonight’s game. The Nets are not expected to play center Brook Lopez, who made his debut last night against the Bucks after he missed the start of the season with a broken foot.

• Jason Kidd praised Jeremy Lin after the game, but Mavs guard Jason Terry was in no mood to offer compliments about the Knicks guard. Before the game, Terry told Yahoo! Sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski that Lin was a product of Mike D’Antoni’s system, to the point where he said “95 percent” of his success was from the system. While this is inarguable — D’Antoni’s system is predicated on point guard play — it isn’t fair to completely dismiss Lin’s skill set as a perfect match for the system. Terry may have missed how much Toney Douglas struggled earlier this season or how much Raymond Felton has become ordinary again.

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Before the Linsanity

Believe it or not there was hope before Linsanity.

Though few around the Knicks want to recall the season that preceded Jeremy Lin’s emergence as the catalyst for the team’s sudden success — which has now reached seven straight wins after Wednesday’s 100-85 blowout over the Sacrament Kings — the truth is Mike D’Antoni‘s group was making small steps of improvement.

There was the game against the Miami Heat on Jan. 27, which was a head-to-head battle until the offense fell apart in the fourth quarter. There were final-possession losses to the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics on back-to-back nights on Feb. 2 and Feb. 3, just before Lin’s ascension against the Nets on the third night of that back-to-back-to-back.

There was also something you couldn’t ignore throughout the seemingly endless punches that came in the stretch of nine losses in 11 games: The locker room never fell apart.

Voices got louder — from what I’ve heard, Tyson Chandler and, yes, even Baron Davis, were the most outspoken — but fingers never pointed. Frustration was evident, but it never led to hopelessness. There was a resolve among the group to stick together — and that included staying behind their embattled coach, who took the gale-force brunt of the external anger — and it was something D’Antoni marveled at during the losses.

And now as the storm has passed, the clouds are gone and his Knicks are back at .500 with so much optimism again toward the lofty goals D’Antoni dared to set for the team before the season, he marveled some more at the kind of character he has in that locker room. It not only got the team through the worst of times, but should also help them handle prosperity, as well. It allows them to enjoy Lin’s singular success because there is a collective investment in it.

This is a team built with stars that has, through adversity, developed a scrappy sense of We.

“As a coach, that’s the secret,” D’Antoni said. “Everybody knows what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to act. In kindergarten you probably learn that. That’s how you should act. Nobody should look at stats and nobody should care. All it is, is about winning.

“And we have a bunch of guys where that’s where it is,” he continued. “I just feel like, any of these guys, I could go down and ask them to do whatever and they’ll try to do it. It’s a great feeling, as a coach, to have a group like that.”

That includes Carmelo Anthony, who spent most of the first third of the season trying to play the role of scorer and facilitator, something he’d never done full-time in his career. But he did it, as requested, because of the lack of a playmaking point guard, which is, as we’re seeing now, so vital to the success of this offense. Melo led the team in scoring and assists, but point-forward isn’t his game.

He struggled with it, but never complained. He took criticism for it, but never deflected the blame. The coaching staff knew they were asking too much, but there was no other choice. At least not until Melo went to them and insisted they give Lin a chance in the second half against the Nets. And Melo, who struggled with his shot that night, went off the ball and let the kid work.

And now all he hears is that he’s too selfish to play with Lin.

D’Antoni doesn’t believe that. Yes, he really liked his group last season before the Melo trade and, despite the difficulty of overhauling the roster mid-season, he did admit privately that the team needed more to be a championship contender. And this season, from Day One, he has told confidants that Melo has impressed him most with his genuine effort and willingness to do whatever asked.

So let’s let this play out. It’s fair to say the Knicks have been hard to like, on and off the court, for myriad reasons over the last decade. But there’s no question this group has become one worthy to embrace.

The coach certainly has.

YAO’S PERSPECTIVE ON LINSANITY

Veteran NBA writer Fran Blinebury did an excellent story for NBA.com today off an interview he did with Yao Ming, who has a unique perspective on Jeremy Lin and the Linsanity craze, which has re-awakened the Asian market for the NBA in the wake of Yao’s retirement.

The best quote came when Yao was discussing Lin’s engaging personality and subtle toughness, which has been revealed in some clutch moments over this stretch of seven games.

“His attitude is so peaceful, but there is strength to him,” Yao said. “It is not a violent strength like fire or something aggressive. It is like the ocean, very peaceful, very quiet when you look at it. But you can never underestimate the power that is in there.”

FIXINS

• The team did not practice on Thursday, but Melo was expected to work out on his own to see how his strained groin injury has progressed and if he could be ready to play for Friday’s game against the Hornets at Madison Square Garden. He has made it clear he won’t play if he’s not 100 percent.

• As we reported on the pregame show last night, J.R. Smith’s season in China is now officially over and he is going through the process of being cleared by the Chinese Basketball Association so he can sign with an NBA team. He is reportedly choosing between the Knicks, Clippers and Lakers.

• Rookie Iman Shumpert has been named one of the participants in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest at All-Star Weekend in Orlando. Shumpert has certainly missed his share of dunks in games this season, but as we saw on some videos that went viral over the summer, the kid has some nasty practice dunks. He’s looking to join three-time winner Nate Robinson and Kenny “Sky” Walker among Knicks who have won the contest.

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No One Is Bigger Than The Team

Tyson Chandler made the most pointed statement of the night after the Knicks’ gutsy win in Minnesota on Saturday. It was perceived as a warning shot rather than a mentality for a team that seemed to be finally developing an identity.

“The game should dictate the star,” Chandler said, “not the individual.”

Chandler’s mantra — which spawned 48 hours of hand-wringing over Carmelo Anthony‘s impact on Linsanity — brought back to life a message originally promoted by legendary coach Red Holzman, who in the early 1970s had a team of stars but got them to sacrifice for the greater good.

Chandler’s quote echoes the principle of Mike D’Antoni‘s offense and Holzman’s “Find the Open Man” credo, which emphasizes the idea that the high-scorer or offensive star isn’t established by the player, but by the game. It’s what the opponent gives you. It’s who has the hot hand. Not who has to “get theirs.”

For instance, Walt Frazier, the point guard whose job was to set up others, put forth one of the greatest Game 7 performances of all-time in the 1970 NBA Finals. “That night,” he often recalls, “I was the open man.”

Other nights it was someone else. No one player was more emblematic of giving up personal achievements for the sake of team success more than Earl Monroe, who came to the team in 1971, a superstar from the Baltimore Bullets with the reputation as a dynamic soloist.

The criticism was that there was no way Monroe and his one-on-one game could fit into Holzman’s symphony, with Frazier, Bill BradleyDave DeBusschere and Willis Reed. Before agreeing to the trade, even Monroe wondered if it would work, but the more he heard the doubts from others, he turned it into a challenge.

“The ego thing always creeps in there, but at the same time, if you’re a good basketball player, you know how to win,” Monroe told Knicks historian Dennis D’Agostino in the terrific book, Garden Glory.

“I was always a winning basketball player. Even when I wasn’t scoring an awful lot of points, guys always wanted to play with me. So I didn’t have any problems with that. I just knew it was Clyde’s ball and I’d have to fit my way in there.”

In the midst of his prime years, Monroe sacrificed statistics (his scoring average dropped dramatically) but came away with an elusive — and unforgettable — championship ring in 1973.

Enter Melo, who, like Monroe, finds amusing the notion that he can’t — or won’t — buy into the beautiful team-concept flow the Knicks have played in the emergence of Jeremy Lin.

“People questioning whether I can fit in, I don’t even know where that’s coming from,” Anthony said after Monday’s practice. “I can play with anybody. It’s funny for me.”

Melo is still out with a groin strain, but could return to the lineup later this week, perhaps by Friday’s game against the New Orleans Hornets. But the turnaround of the Knicks in his absence has not been lost on the All-Star forward. Actually, what few people know is he’s one of the reasons why Lin got that chance against the Nets. Melo was one of the voices that encouraged D’Antoni to give the unknown, undrafted point guard more minutes.

And now people expect him to destroy what he helped create? Lin, as Carmelo said, is “thriving” in “the system that we’re running” and that’s undeniable.

Though it is a small sample, Lin’s success isn’t just in points or assists, but in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which is 25.9, and Assist Percentage, which is 47.7. Compare those numbers to the current league leaders and Lin would rank fourth in PER behind LeBron James (31.8), Chris Paul (27.0) and Kevin Durant (26.3) and second in Assist Percentage behind Steve Nash (58.1). [Note: PER is a measure of Per-Minute production and Assist Percentage is percentage of team’s baskets Lin assists on when he’s in the game].

It should be pointed out here that Melo’s highest scoring season came while playing with Andre Miller, a traditional point guard, and Allen Iverson, a ball-dominant scoring guard. Not to mention that with the ball in Lin’s hands, the pressure is now off Melo to be a facilitator and now he can focus on what he does best: Scoring.

“It’s very exciting time right now for myself to just sit back and intake all of this information and intake everybody’s opinion,” he said. “I’m telling you, I couldn’t be in a more blessed situation right now.”

Make no mistake, it’s on Melo to do it within the team concept that has awakened this group. And he knows it. If he puts in the effort to fit into the symphony, the way Monroe did, the possibilities are endless. If he falls into the habit of being a ball-dominating, isolation player, the way many of his critics are predicting, an entire city that is captivated by this team in a way it hasn’t been in many years, will turn on him.

“When I get back, it will be that much more fun for myself,” Melo said. “It will be that much more fun for the New York Knicks.”

AMAR’E: ‘SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT’

The Melo Effect — and the penchant for doomsday prophesizing that is so distinctly New York — overshadows the intrigue of Stoudemire’s return to the team after his painful week mourning the death of his brother.

A somber Stoudemire appeared to still have a heavy heart after practice, but said that Lin’s emergence and the success of the team in his absence gave him “something to smile about right now.”

Lin, who was given a “recovery day,” did not scrimmage with the team in practice so there were no sneak previews of he and Stoudemire in the pick-and-roll. But the anticipation is the two should be able to quickly develop — will it be as early as Tuesday’s game in Toronto? — a chemistry similar to something seen in Phoenix a few years ago.

Stoudemire even acknowledged “some similarities” between Lin and his former pick-and-roll partner, Nash.

“He’s definitely on his way,” Stoudemire said. “Steve’s obviously one of the all-time greats. If Jeremy keeps improving, he can continue to find success, and he’ll be right there with Nash.”

Nash, last week, tweeted his appreciation for Lin’s amazing story. Perhaps the former two-time MVP might share some notes with the Harvard grad on how to get the most out of Stoudemire and D’Antoni’s system?

“Oh sure,” Lin said. “Whatever advice he has. How can you not listen to Nash?”

Amar’e already loves the swagger of Linsanity. “Only in New York can you become an international icon overnight,” he said.

FIXINS

• Of all the amazing feats Lin has made over the last 10 days, the fact that he was named on Monday NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week was almost an afterthought. Lin averaged 27.3 points, 8.3 assists and 2 steals per game in four games — the NBA “week” goes from Monday to Sunday, so it included the Jazz, Wizards, Lakers and Timberwolves wins — to capture the award. As reported by CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger, Lin became the first player to win D-League Player of the Week honors (last season) and NBA Player of the Week honors.

• Lin was asked which nicknames he has enjoyed most. “I like Jeremy,” he said. He did eventually admit that “Super Lin-tendo” was pretty cool.

• A notably lean Baron Davis, still working his way back from a herniated disk, spent most of practice doing some very intense-looking core exercises on a side court and then participated in a pick-and-roll based shooting drill with Stoudemire.

• Chatted a bit with sharpshooting forward Steve Novak, who is averaging 15.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game over the last four games and is shooting a sizzling 16-for-31 (51.6 percent) from downtown in that span. Told him, “I’ve never been happier with being proven terribly wrong” and admitted I questioned his ability to rebound and defend as reasons why he wasn’t getting rotation minutes. He shrugged and said he originally thought I was an awful studio analyst. I guess we’re even.

A FAN’S VIEW OF LINSANITY

Frank Levy is a professor of Urban Economics at MIT and, despite his location so deep in enemy territory outside of Boston, he is a lifelong Knicks fan. Many of us in the media have spent the past week trying to put to words the impact Jeremy Lin’s story — and game — has had on this team, this franchise and this city, but I think Frank put it best in an email to me today:

“In October of 1969, I was living in the Bay Area. It was the beginning of the first full season with Reed at center and DeBusschere at forward. It was about 5:00 PM and I was driving home listening on the car radio to the Warriors/Knicks playing at MSG. The Warriors broadcaster was Bill King, a terrific guy who called games pretty straight. Frazier executed a backdoor play with Bradley and King went nuts – “I have never seen a backdoor executed that well…”  You just knew something very special was beginning to happen.

In fact, the Knicks lost that game but it was THE brilliant season. Over the next 40 years, I haven’t had that feeling many other times but I am getting that feeling now. Fingers crossed.”

The point is that having stars is great. We spent the last four years focusing on stars through the LeBronathon, signing Amar’e, the Melopalooza and even the Chris Paul sweepstakes. But what really inspires people is when talent comes together to create something special.

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May the Force Be “Lin” You

Amar’e Stoudemire must have had a Han Solo moment as the clock wound down at the Air Canada CentreTuesday nightJeremy Lin, this young Jedi, had the ball in his hands and waved off the pick-and-roll so he could go one-on-one against Jose Calderon for the final shot.

You know what Amar’e was thinking.

“I go away for a little while and everybody gets delusions of grandeur.”

Stoudemire grinned as MSG Network’s Tina Cervasio asked him about his experience with Linsanity.

“I don’t know what’s going on here in New York right now,” Stoudemire said, “but Jeremy is playing great.”

The trick, of course, is to get Lin playing great with Stoudemire, which is something most people expect should happen, considering both have confluent pick-and-roll skills. And if there is a basketball criticism to make about Lin’s game in Toronto, it’s that he spent the first half trying too hard to make that happen.

On the surface, you scan Lin’s statline and the snowman in the turnovers column leaps off the page. But consider that he had five of them in the first half, with several the result of driving hard at Stoudemire looking to make something happen. This is the issue Lin will have to deal with, even as Carmelo Anthony returns to the lineup: Overcoming the urge to defer to the stars.

In the second half, Lin went on the attack and drove at the Raptors defense. Stoudemire shook off some of the noticeable rust from missing a week while mourning the death of his brother and began to play off of Lin’s drives.

Of Lin’s five second-half assists, three went to Stoudemire. The most memorable came with 7:12 left in the game when Lin drove, drew Amir Johnson and then slipped it to Stoudemire for a dunk to cut Toronto’s lead to 78-74.

Both Lin and Stoudemire had huge second half performances in the win: Stoudemire had 13 of his 21 points, six of his nine rebounds and shot 6 for 13 from the field. Lin had 18 of his 27 points and hit 5-of-11 from the field and 7-of -11 from the foul line.

“It’s going to take a little bit of an adjustment,” Lin said of playing with Stoudemire. “He’s unbelievable, I don’t know what he ended up with tonight, but he’s an unbelievable pick-and-roll player, he’s an unbelievable one-on-one player, so it’s my job as a point guard to exploit that and get it where he wants it. Obviously we’ll go through bumps, but I think we made improvements throughout the game tonight.”

BIG APPLE TURNOVER

Lin’s turnover penchant is of obvious concern and the one — one — area where he is showing a weakness. In seven games this season in which he has played 20 or more minutes, Lin is averaging 4.9 turnovers per game. He’s had six or more in four of his five starts.

This is obviously a result of having the ball in his hands for so much of the game. Lin’s Usage Percentage — a rating of how much the offense goes through him when he’s on the floor — has skyrocketed to 31.8 percent this season, which is second-highest on the team behind Anthony (32.7). This would be fifth-highest percentage in the NBA, behind Kobe Bryant (37.6), Russell Westbrook (33.2), LeBron James (32.8) and Melo.

But usage isn’t an excuse for turnovers. Still, it’s not uncommon for point guards who have the ball in their hands most of the game to have a high turnover rate. In fact, of the top five leaders in Assist Percentage in the NBA, four of them have a turnover percentage (based on 100 possessions) of 17 or higher.

Lin’s 48 percent assist percentage would rank second in the NBA behind Steve Nash (58.3), and Nash has a 24.4 percent turnover percentage. Lin’s turnover percentage is 18.8.

Rajon Rondo (46.8 assist percentage and a 22.4 turnover percentage), Jose Calderon (46 assist percentage, 17 turnover percentage) and Deron Williams (45 assist percentage, 17.7 turnover percentage) are other examples. Chris Paul (44.7 assist percentage, 11.9 turnover percentage) is the only exception.

THE RISING

One of the endearing qualities about Lin is his penchant for deflecting credit and pointing to his teammates. He had the right perspective when asked about the Knicks’ thrilling run of six straight wins, as he pointed to the fact that the team was showing steady improvement before he got into the rotation with those close losses to the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics.

“It’s not because of me its because we’re coming together as a team and we started making these steps earlier but we were still losing close games,” he said. “So obviously it wasn’t fun. But when you win that solves a lot of problems.”

Lin’s modesty won’t let him publicly acknowledge that he has provided the missing element — a playmaking point guard who understands the system (and has ice water in his veins) — so we’ll say it for him.

But he’s right, his heroics are getting most of the attention, but the Knicks have emerged as a gritty, hardworking team. And that’s the best part about all of this.

“It’s a collective effort right now and that’s the beauty of a team sport,” Lin said. ” . . . I just love playing on a team that wants to be a team, and this team wants to be a team.”

TONIGHT ON MSG

The Knicks are back at it again as they host the Sacramento Kings tonight at The Garden. Be sure to tune into Visa Knicks Game Night on MSG Network at 7:00 p.m. to catch the latest Knicks Fix segment!

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“Playing the Way We Want to Play”

Mike D’Antoni didn’t want to say it, but you can tell he’s already thinking it. As Jeremy Lin continues to prove himself less of a novelty and more of a real deal, there are many similarities emerging that remind D’Antoni of another point guard that flourished in his system.

“Well, that’s pretty easy,” D’Antoni said when asked to make a parallel. “But I’m not going to go there.”

No, three games into Linsanity is no time to evoke the name of Steve Nash, who was a two-time MVP under D’Antoni with the Phoenix Suns. But D’Antoni did let the name slip earlier in his media address following Wednesday’s 107-93 win over the Wizards in Washington when talking about the challenges that Lin will ultimately face as he settles into the role as the starting point guard.

“If he plays this way, he’ll sustain it,” D’Antoni said of Lin’s stunning high-level of play over the last three games. The coach then pointed out how “Steve Nash would have eight turnovers sometimes, that will happen.”

Let’s hit the pause button on this right now. Lin is not Steve Nash. He can’t shoot from the perimeter anywhere near as well as Nash. But he is crafty like Nash, he is quick like Nash, he has terrific command of his dribble like Nash and he has very good court awareness like Nash.

But no, he’s not Steve Nash.

Coincidentally, he’s caught Nash’s attention.

“If you love sports you have to love what Jeremy Lin is doing,” Nash posted on his Twitter account after the game last night. “Getting an opportunity and exploding!!”

Perhaps Nash knows it better than anyone else: this is a system that, with the right player, can turn an ordinary point guard into an extraordinary one. Chris Duhon had a career-best season in 2008-09 (11.1 points, 7.2 assists per game) as D’Antoni’s lead guard. Raymond Felton also put up career-high numbers last season (17.1 poins, 9.0 assists) running the show.

But it’s not for everyone. Chauncey Billups, for one, wasn’t the drive-and-kick, pick-and-roll type. Toney Douglas, despite three seasons in this offense, has struggled to develop the vision to see the open man.

Lin is the closest thing that D’Antoni has had to Nash since he arrived in New York. Out of the depths of the roster emerged D’Antoni’s long-awaited Nash 2.0, a point guard with uncanny vision and the athletic ability to break down defenders and wisely use the pick-and-roll.

And with the ball in his hands, the Knicks offense — even without Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire — is running smoothly. For instance, Lin has assisted on 57 percent of all Knicks field goals when he is on the floor. For perspective, Steve Nash — yes, that guy — leads the NBA in assist percentage at 57 percent.

This is why D’Antoni says the Knicks are now “playing the way we want to play.”

Here are two other points to note about Lin’s skill set on offense:

 When he uses the screen to go to his weak (left) hand, he will quickly cross-over back to his right off the pick, which often puts the chasing defender on his back or hip, rather than allowing him to stay next to him.

 He finds the corner three-point shooter with strong, accurate one-handed passes on the move as he draws the defense in. Steve Novak has become a dangerous weapon mainly because Lin finds him on the weak side.

D’Antoni has admitted that defense was one of the main reasons why the coaching staff was hesitant with Lin, but they have been surprised by how strong and competitive he has been. There will be issues and some tough matchups for him, but the same could be said about Na– that guy he had in Phoenix.

What still waits to be seen is how teams will begin to formulate a strategy against Lin. The Jazz blitzed him with high traps late in Monday’s game, which led to some turnovers. The Wizards surprisingly waited a long time before they tried a trap and by then it was too late. And Lin saw them coming and split them with a quick dribble.

This is what will really be the true test of how close he can be compared to Nash: his ability to read defenses and adjust.

“A good point guard will be able to read what they’re doing and take advantage of something else,” D’Antoni said.

Is he really the answer? D’Antoni is now a believer.

“I think it’s real, because the thing that’s for real is his vision, which won’t change, his speed, which won’t change, his knowledge of the game, which won’t change,” D’Antoni said. “I think it can only get better.”

NERD ALERT!

Landry Fields said there is an excitement that has permeated the team since Lin emerged as the catalyst of the offense.

“You see him and you see what he’s doing out there . . . it’s inspirational,” Fields said. “It makes you want to elevate your game to a higher level. He does a lot of things, whether he knows it or not, on the court and off the court, especially for me, and it’s contagious.”

Fields, the Stanford graduate, and Lin, the Harvard guy, developed an immediate kinship as brainiacs. They even have their own handshake:

THE JV EMERGES

The success the team is having despite the absences of Carmelo Anthony (groin strain) and Amar’e Stoudemire (bereavement) should pay dividends when the stars return. Only a week ago the Knicks bench was providing very little on offense and appeared to be alarmingly shallow.

But we’re seeing value in Novak (38 points, 10-for-17 from downtown in his last two games) as a catch-and-shoot threat and moving rookie Iman Shumpert off the ball has allowed him to focus on his strengths — defense — and removed the pressure of running the offense. There is a confidence developing among the reserves who are filling in right now and having success and that, you would expect, should carry over once the stars return to the lineup.

KOBE’S ANNUAL VISIT

Friday night brings one of the biggest games on the Knicks home schedule every season, with the Los Angeles Lakers in town. Kobe Bryant, who owns the Garden scoring record with 61 points, is leading the league in scoringwith 29.3 points per game.

While Landry Fields is expected to get the start once again against his childhood idol, it will be interesting to see how Shumpert fares against the future Hall of Famer.

Shumpert has the size, strength and quickness to match up with Bryant, but obviously it’s still a monumental task.

The same goes for Lin, who will be met at the rim by not just one length defender in Andrew Bynum, but two with Pau Gasol also patrolling the paint. It will be interesting to see how coach Mike Brown sets up the Lakers defense against Lin’s pick-and-roll. And it won’t be surprising to see the Lakers put the Knicks point guard on the floor a few times to test his mettle.

Without Melo and Amar’e, there will be tough matchups for the Knicks all around the court, but the Knicks will have the benefit of rest, as the Lakers will be coming off what is usually a very physical game against the Celtics tonight in Boston.

Our broadcast of the Lakers-Knicks game, which tips off at 8 p.m., starts at 7 p.m. on MSG Network. Be sure to tune in and get all the behind-the-scenes coverage and information on the Knicks from the people who know your team better than anyone.

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Is Lin the Answer?

Leave it to the Harvard guy to be prepared for the biggest test of his career.

Jeremy Lin passed — literally — with flying colors after he put up 25 points, seven assists and just one turnover in Saturday’s 99-92 win over the Nets on Saturday night.
You could say he made the Dean’s List, as Mike D’Antoni assured he’d continue to give Lin important minutes “because he gives us something we’ve been without.”

And important minutes may come tonight since Lin will start against the Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden. What Lin has consistently proven in spot minutes before the Nets game and then in 35 minutes against New Jersey was that he can get the offense moving with his dribble penetration and vision to make passes to the Knicks talented bigs.

“When you can get a guard in the paint, it makes the defense react,” Tyson Chandler said.

Of Lin’s seven assists against the Nets, six of them went for finishes at the rim, according to HoopData.com. He has 24 assists so far this season and 12 of them are “at-the-rim” baskets. In comparison, only 20 of Toney Douglas‘ 58 assists (34 percent) were finished at the rim.

D’Antoni admitted his hesitation to give Lin meaningful minutes at the point guard position with the starters had a lot to do with defense. Douglas and rookie Iman Shumpert have struggled leading the offense, but both are more than capable defenders.

While the Knicks have struggled with their offense this season, they have slowly become an above average defensive team. And there was some concern about sacrificing defense for offense, especially if the experiment failed as the team desperately needed a win. So after D’Antoni gave Lin a look in the first half in Boston on Friday, he went back to Douglas in the second half.

But Saturday against the Nets, despite the desperation for a win, D’Antoni held his breath and sent Lin back into the game in a tight second half.

“I had my doubts, but we stayed with it,” D’Antoni said. “He has some of the qualities we needed. I just didn’t know about his defense.”

To his credit, Lin quelled his coach’s concerns by applying a skill that made him a proud Harvard man: Good study habits. Lin studied the scouting report, which is provided to every player before every game, and knew what to expect when guarding a star like Deron Williams: Force him left, don’t go under the screen and don’t help off him.

These sound like simple, elementary principles, but it’s amazing how preparation can breed confidence.

And encouragement from your teammates helps, too.

“Everyone was giving me advice . . . all the veterans were giving me advice along the way,” Lin said.

They all knew about his offense. They all believed he had something that could help. Even Douglas, who stands to lose minutes from Lin’s emergence, was cheering from the bench and giving Lin an earful during timeouts.

And though the stars on the team haven’t had much experience playing with Lin in practice, they’ve seen his handiwork in scrimmages after practices and shoot-arounds, which generally involve depth players who need to keep up their conditioning.

“When they go and they play three-on-three and we watch, he kills,” Chandler said. “He’s a problem. He’s tough to stay in front of and we always give the guards a hard time. But then it became a trend, it wasn’t just one guard.”

Lin credited assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, a heady point guard who had a 10-year pro career in Europe, for working with him since he arrived on Dec. 27. And, of course, there was the couch that teammate Landry Fieldsprovided Friday night.

“I didn’t have a place to stay last night, so I slept on Landry’s couch,” Lin said. “I think I might just move in with him.”

He may need to find a place of his own for a while. Coincidentally, Lin initially appeared to be the likely cut the team would make if it signed a player, such as J.R. Smith, with its room exception. Now, however, Lin has a chance to solidify his spot on the roster — and in the rotation — if he can continue to be effective in the offense. And remain prepared on defense.

“If he keeps it right there,” D’Antoni said, “he can be a valuable piece.”

It’s a piece the Knicks thought they would add in veteran Baron Davis, once he is ready to play. It would be a major bonus if the Knicks can also get it from Lin on a consistent basis — which is Lin’s next challenge — because then the team won’t have to use assets to make a trade for a backup.

AMAR’E’S LOSS

Amar’e Stoudemire rushed to join his family in Florida this morning after he received the devastating news about a car accident that claimed the life of his older brother, Hazell, early Monday morning.

Amar’e will not play tonight against the Jazz and it is uncertain if he will be back with the team to play the Wizards on Wednesday in D.C.

Our prayers go out to the Stoudemire family.

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A Passing Fancy for Knicks?

Remember that Carmelo Anthony was the first player in the gym the second the NBA unlocked the doors in December. Remember that Melo arrived in great shape, with three percent less body fat than the season before and with a sense of ownership of the team after last season’s whirlwind.

And if none of that means anything to you, go with the simple fact that Melo has never ducked anyone in his career, especially LeBron James. His head-to-head career record against his 2003 draft classmate is 10-4.

I recall conversations I had with NBA executives and scouts who each told me of all the players in the NBA, Anthony may be the only NBA player that has the ability to intimidate LeBron. It is a terrific battle between these two friends — remember, they are good friends off the court as members of this NBA Rat Pack (LeBron, Wade, Melo and CP3) — every time they meet and star players look forward to these battles, they don’t retreat from them.

So, as we discussed at the top on Visa Knicks Game Night before the Knicks faced the Heat last night, let’s dispel any notion that Anthony simply didn’t want to play against LeBron. It was because he knew he couldn’t compete against LeBron and the Knicks couldn’t afford to have someone at half-speed going against one of the game’s most physically dominant players.

Fact is, Melo shouldn’t have been playing at all over the last week. And the truth is, he should have shut it down sooner.

“I think I was trying to be a superhero, trying to prove to my teammates that I can play hurt,” Anthony admitted before the game. “At the end of the day, looking at the games the last week-and-a-half, I just wasn’t myself physically. It was taking a toll on me mentally.”

Anthony started out the season as one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers, but slowly reverted to his isolation tendencies when the Knick offense started to falter. Melo’s issue isn’t selfishness (he leads the team with a career-high 4.3 assists per game this season), it is the simple fact that he trusts his game more than he trusts his teammates. And let’s be honest, considering the poor shooting this season, you can understand that perspective.

But what Mike D’Antoni (and Amar’e Stoudemire) are desperately trying to convince him to do is trust the system and stick to the gameplan. In other words, let the ball find you. Some games, if the opponent is focused on stopping you, the ball will go elsewhere. And that’s OK. That’s why you play on a team with another star, so you don’t have to carry the scoring burden.

Last night’s game in Miami provided the example, for most of three quarters, at least.

The Heat surrounded Stoudemire and gave him no room to work. It left the perimeter open for many shots and, for one night, the Knicks hit them. Amar’e had just 14 shots and was bottled up without a pick-and-roll point guard to help him get free, but afterward he was pleased with what he saw with the offense.

“The game was going well for a lot of other guys, so moving the ball was key for us,” Stoudemire said.

But let’s get back to Melo, who some wanted to see gut it out and play despite having no chance to keep pace running on a bad right ankle that has taken away his explosiveness to the rim and his elevation on his jumper.

Two games ago, he had just one point and was 0-for-7 from the field in Charlotte, but the Knicks got away with it because the Bobcats are awful. Then he went to Cleveland and made a few shots, but had nothing to offer physically against a young team that can run.

In a season with games that keep coming with little to no time off — next week brings the one (and only) back-to-back-to-back of the schedule — the only way to get rest is to take a game or two off. Dwyane Wade was out for the last six games before he returned last night. Dirk Nowitzki is in the midst of a four-game hiatus to allow his balky knee to heal and get his conditioning right.

And let’s not overlook Baron Davis, either. To his credit, he is not rushing back to the court despite the team’s desperate need for him. Davis, who is recovering from a herniated disk, does not want to come back until he is 100 percent strong and can help the team. For him to come back too soon could result in a setback that will only hurt the team more.

The East has nine teams under .500. The Knicks have to stay within range of the playoff bracket and hope they can go into the postseason hitting their stride and, most importantly, at full health.

So for Carmelo, the decision to sit is absolutely the right idea, but the argument can be made that it came a week too late. He was already hurting after rolling the ankle and jamming the wrist in the Memphis game on Jan. 12, which started this 1-8 tailspin — Coincidence? — and he sat out just one game (Jan. 14 in Oklahoma City) in that span, despite obvious physical limitations.

He finally accepted the fact that he can’t be like the inhuman Kobe Bryant, he can’t play through the pain and still be effective.

“I think he’s a gamer, he’s one of the toughest guys I know,” D’Antoni said of Melo. “And if that sets him out, that means he’s hurt. He’s played through a lot of pain and a lot of stuff, he’s always done that so obviously he’s hurt.”

TYSON WANTS ‘NEW YORK’ IDENTITY

Despite the loss, the Knicks were collectively encouraged — let’s not use the word satisfied here, it still was a loss — by a toughness that emerged throughout the game against a historical rival. After LeBron and D-Wade put on a dunk show for most of the first half, the Knicks got more physical around the rim to put an end to the jam session.

It started with rookie Iman Shumpert‘s hustle to catch up with Wade on a break and make a good play to stop his driving dunk attempt. Wade, who had just returned from missing six games with an ankle injury, took exception to the aggressive play and got in Shumpert’s face. Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler quickly stepped in to protect the young guard, who, to his credit, said nothing.

Then there was a hard foul by Bill Walker when LeBron was going strong to the basket. LeBron glared at Walker and said, “Don’t say nothing to me!” when the Knicks forward had a few words for him.

Overall, the Knicks showed great intensity in meeting a challenge against one of the NBA’s top teams. It is the type of effort that should be a given on every night, not just when you’re playing to not get embarrassed. It’s the type of effort that Chandler said should be a main characteristic of a team from New York.

“That’s the way you’ve got to play; that’s what this team has to be all about,” Chandler said. “We have to represent our city. That’s the way New York is, a grinding city, gutter, and we have to play that way with that type of personality.”

FIXINS

•Landry Fields had some moments in the game where he looked physically overwhelmed by the Heat, with five of his 12 shots blocked. But of the seven that got to the rim, he did make four of them. Fields’ stat-line looked good once again, with 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a steal in 34:03.

•Bill Walker’s career-high seven three-pointers was two shy of the franchise record for a game, which is shared byToney Douglas (vs. Memphis, March 17, 2011), Latrell Sprewell and John Starks.

•The 18 threes made by the Knicks were two shy of the franchise record (vs. Memphis, March 17, 2011) and the 43 attempts were four shy of the team record (vs. Chicago, Dec. 17, 2009).

Tweet yesterday from former Nuggets shooting guard J.R. Smith, who had been playing in China this season: “I wonder what it’s like to play on broadway? #hmmmmm!” Smith, of course, is an unrestricted free agent. Once his team’s season ends, he will be eligible to sign with any NBA team. The Knicks, who still have their “room exception,” are believed to be among teams interested.

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