Before there was ever Linsanity, the Knicks had another lesser-known point guard who was a surprise off the bench and helped lead the team to a winning streak.
That would be Iman Shumpert, who, after two solid games as a reserve in early January, was called up to be the starter. From there, the Knicks won their next three games.
While the rookie couldn't maintain an extended winning streak -- the Knicks lost their next six games -- he was already making a name for himself with his on-the-ball defense, aggressiveness driving to the basket and explosive dunks.
Those traits were definitely on hand Wednesday night at the Garden during the Knicks' 108-86 blowout win over the Orlando Magic -- the first obviously being defense. At different times, Shumpert, a versatile defender who can guard multiple positions, locked down shooting guard Jason Richardson (five points on 2-for-5 shooting), small forward Hedo Turkoglu (five points; 2-for-7) and power forward Ryan Anderson (three points; 1-for-4).
Debby Wong/US Presswire
In addition to his defense, Iman Shumpert scored 25 points in Wednesday's win.Shumpert's defense -- he's second among rookies in steals per game (1.7) -- was particularly dominant in two areas. First, after he would drop down to the block area to help out Tyson Chandler guarding Dwight Howard one-on-one, he would quickly rotate back to his defender after the pass out of the post was made. There was never a delayed response from Shumpert. He seemed to always be aware of what was going on and never was a step behind.
Second, when Shumpert was on his man, he swarmed the ball carrier like a killer bee, taking advantage of his 6-5, 220-pound frame and constantly moving hands to make things difficult for him. While Shumpert only had one steal Wednesday, his furious defense disrupted the opponent's dribble and sight lines to make rapid-fire passes. That extra cautiousness and lack of visibility slowed down the Magic's ball movement, which is a staple of their offense because it leads to their league-high 524 3-pointers. The Magic were only 9-for-26 from beyond the arc tonight (34.6 percent).
"Shump, the way he guards. And Tyson, I mean, he's obviously the leader defensively. Those are huge pieces for us," Steve Novak said in the postgame locker room. "When Shump is out there on the perimeter and Tyson's down low, I mean, everybody follows those guys. They do such a great job. You see Shump out there on the ball, forcing guys over screens and getting steals. He has unbelievable hands. That's contagious."
With Shumpert, along with Chandler, setting the tone defensively, the Knicks were able to hold the Magic to 12 points and then 18 in the second and third quarters, respectively. The Knicks had a slight drop-off in the final period, allowing the Magic to score 27 points, and that irked Shumpert, even though the game was already put away. That goes to show you the kind of emphasis the rookie puts on defense.
"You've just got to stay in guys' chests and we've got to play that way for 48 minutes every game," he said. "We had a big lead and we started to let it slip and we had to turn it back up. We're trying to stay away from those slip acts that we have and just continue to play hard."
Even during the game when Shumpert is on the bench, he's telling his teammates sitting next to him that he can guard anyone on the court. New Knicks assistant Darrell Walker, who Mike Woodson brought on when he became the interim head coach, has pushed Shumpert to make more consistent plays on the defensive end. That's what Walker, who like Shumpert is from Chicago, was known for during his 10 years in the NBA from 1983 to 1993.
"I play defense my way and he's been all over me saying that he's the best defensive guard out of Chicago," Shumpert said. "It's fun, but he definitely doesn't say anything to me on offense [laughs]. He just worries about the defensive end and he gets in me if anybody gets past me. It's definitely big for my confidence and my aggressiveness moving forward on defense."
Offensively, Shumpert utilized that same 6-5, 220-pound frame to penetrate the lane Wednesday and finish strong at the rim, which he's been doing all season. He's especially been a fast-break killer running the wings with Jeremy Lin, Baron Davis or J.R. Smith pushing the ball, putting his 42-inch vertical leap to use.
Wednesday night, and actually starting Monday night in the Knicks' 89-80 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, Shumpert showed off a more refined part of his game: outside shooting. In fact, it was something that Mike D'Antoni and his coaching staff raved about after Shumpert worked out for the team during the 2011 pre-draft process.
Before the Bucks game, Shumpert was being schooled by former Knick and current assistant general manager Allan Houston on shooting off screens. After the rookie missed a few in a row, Houston came up to him and said, "Sometimes your shot is too flat. More arc." In addition, Houston wants him to focus more on releasing the ball with the same routine.
Well, since that game, Houston's advice has made a difference. After scoring 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting in the Knicks' win over the Bucks, Shumpert had 25 on Wednesday on 10-for-21 shooting, including 4-for-10 from 3-point territory. On the season, he's averaging 9.1 points per game.
"He was phenomenal on both ends of the floor," Woodson said. "He changes the game from a defensive standpoint and it didn't hurt that he had his jumpshot working, scoring the ball inside and out. He was unbelievable defensively."
Shumpert credited Carmelo Anthony getting double-teamed routinely as a big reason why he got more open looks. And he knows more will come his way with Lin and Amare Stoudemire both sidelined.
"I think I'm just getting more opportunities," Shumpert said. "Early on, I would miss one or two and maybe I'd turn down the third one. Melo's been all over me just to step in and knock it down. Moving forward, that's what we're going to continue to do. Everybody on the team, when they double or the opportunity presents itself, we're going to get that first good shot instead of turning it down and getting a worst one."
The best 3-point marksman on the team, Novak, whose locker is one removed from Shumpert's, has been very impressed with the rookie's outside touch lately.
"He's really been shooting it well," Novak said. "You can tell he's confident. Sometimes coach gets on him for shooting it too soon or too early in the offense. But you can tell he has confidence in his shot. He's a threat to put on the floor. I think he keeps the defense guessing. He's been big for us lately."
When the Knicks started to get wind on Monday that Stoudemire would be out indefinitely with a bulging disk in his back, the team's other two star players, Anthony and Chandler, both said that it presented an opportunity for someone else to step up.
So far, it has clearly been Shumpert. For him, the motivation is very simple.
"I just want to win," he said.
You can follow Jared Zwerling on Twitter.