|With Jeremy Lin on board, the Knicks finally appear to be a threat in the East. (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- Jeremy Lin and Jason Kidd, two point guards from the Bay Area, had a chance to chat during the game. Yes, the kid from Palo Alto mentioned to the Kidd from Oakland that he's followed his Hall of Fame career.
"He's a Bay Area legend, and I grew up in the Bay Area," Lin said. "I've admired him and watched him his whole career. We were talking throughout the game. He gave me a lot of veteran advice."
Lin, it turns out, also had some words for Kidd. Standing at his locker later, Kidd said Lin told him, "Coming down the stretch, I know you're going to hit a 3."
"Unfortunately, I didn't do that," Kidd said. "I think he was softening me up."
Slowing down Linsanity was beyond Kidd's Hall of Fame powers, and also beyond those of the defending champion Mavericks.
Despite the Dallas defense loading up on Lin, blitzing him on pick-and-rolls and shifting a third defender to stop his penetration, Lin led the Knicks back from a 12-point third-quarter deficit for a 104-97 victory. One game after Lin had stumbled with nine turnovers in a loss to the Hornets, the Knicks' first after seven straight wins since his stratospheric rise began, Lin had 28 points and 14 assists to push them past the champs and back to .500.
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The undrafted point guard from Harvard has scored the most points in the NBA since Feb. 4, the night he came off the bench to stay. It was enough to make Kidd, the very definition of point-guard excellence, take notice.
"He's taken [Knicks coach Mike] D'Antoni's offensive system and he looks a little bit like Steve Nash out there," Kidd said in the visiting locker room of the Garden. "Nash has had a lot of success running that system, and a lot of point guards have gotten to go through that system in the Olympics. It's a point guard's dream."
It's also a big part of the story. As much as Lin's heritage and his undrafted, underdog status are fueling his rise to fame, none of it would be happening without the simple matter of a point guard-driven system finally having someone who knows how to drive it.
"In this system, he needs one," Kidd said of D'Antoni. "And he has one. In his system, that's where it starts. You look at Nash, he's a two-time MVP in that system. He has one and they're rolling. They're playing well. They'll make the playoffs and they'll scare some teams, if not beat some teams."
Fifteen days ago, before Lin got a chance to steer the Knicks' offense, D'Antoni was 8-15, miserable and going nowhere with a star-studded roster burdened by expectations. All he needed, it turns out, was a point guard.
"It's not so much them, it's how they play," said Mavs forward Shawn Marion, who played in D'Antoni's system in Phoenix. "It's hard to guard. He goes from one pick-and-roll to another one. If he doesn't get what they want, there's going to be another one. It's a lot of work."
Even with the Mavs, with the No. 1 field goal percentage defense in the league, loading up on Lin with the kind of paint-protecting defense you typically see against Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo, there was no curtailing his influence on the game. On a couple of the rare occasions when Dallas didn't trap him, Lin recognized it immediately and drove to the basket for two straight and-ones. When he waved off a screen midway through the fourth, Lin sized up Dirk Nowitzki and hit a three over his outstretched hand to give the Knicks a 90-81 lead with 6:51 left -- representing a 20-point swing since New York trailed 72-63 with 3:18 left in the third.
"When you play like that on offense and you have a lot of weapons going at the same time, something's going to open up," Lin said. "Something's going to give."
Kidd can have the Nash comparison for now, but I'll grant him that Lin is like D'Antoni's former point guard in Phoenix in this way: He keeps coming, keeps running the offense until he gets what he wants. When he makes a mistake -- Lin had seven more turnovers Sunday -- he "doesn't dwell on it," Marion said. "That's very rare."
"He's a tough kid," the Mavs' Jason Terry said. "And he showed it tonight."
Count Terry among those who have been converted into believers. Only three hours earlier, Terry was in the locker room telling reporters that Lin's outburst was "a lot of hype," according to ESPNDallas.com.
"Is he going to be a good player in the future?" Terry said. "If he continues to work, he will. But everybody's making a lot out of the seven games he's [started]. I've been in the league 13 years, so seven games doesn't necessarily make a career."
The Mavs, of course, were one of the teams that could've given Lin a chance before the Knicks did. It was Dallas that invited him to Las Vegas Summer League in 2010, where he held his own against No. 1 pick John Wall. But with a guard-heavy roster including draft picks and players with guaranteed contracts, Lin slipped away. Same story in Golden State and Houston.
The Knicks, whose winning waiver claim on Lin was based on last season's records, have given him what none of those other teams could have: A coach whose offensive style is tailored specifically to his talents and whose success is more predicated on smart, fast point-guard play than any other in the NBA.
"Chicago and Miami are definitely the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, right now," Marion said. "But with the talent they've got over there, they've got a chance."
The Knicks' strange, exhilarating brew got a little more entertaining -- and potentially dangerous -- with the addition of J.R. Smith, who returned from China to score 15 points off the bench Sunday. Baron Davis, once counted on to stabilize the point guard position for D'Antoni but now pretty much an afterthought, dressed for the first time this season but wasn't needed.
The next ingredient could come Monday if Carmelo Anthony returns from a groin injury against the Nets, the opponent on Feb. 4 when Linsanity began. Much dread is in the air about this, but it seems like a pretty basic concept: If Melo had been playing Sunday, Marion wouldn't have been guarding Lin and the Mavs wouldn't have had three defenders trying to keep him out of the paint. Not for long, anyway.
"They believe in scoring points," Marion said.
So the strange, thrilling journey that has pumped life back into the Garden and made the NBA fun again continues -- one day, one challenge, one doubter at a time. And in some ways, the place where you'd think it would be most difficult for Lin -- the court -- has become his shelter from the storm that surrounds him.
At the end of his news conference Sunday, Lin made a public plea for the media in his parents' homeland of Taiwan to leave his family alone. His 85-year-old grandmother has been profiled in the New York Times, and other family members "can't even go to work without getting bombarded and followed," he said.
"I just want people to respect the privacy of my relatives in Taiwan," Lin said. "Hopefully this will get back to everybody, because they need to live their lives as well."
In that moment, you realized something: The words of a once seldom-used, little-known point guard now carry across the globe. If that isn't Linsanity, I don't know what is.