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.”
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.