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.