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As they prepare for the second act of the most celebrated 17-18 season in NBA history, the New York Knicks should understand this about their identity: It belongs to Jeremy Lin now, and probably for years to come.
Chris Paul is on record saying these Knicks still start with Carmelo Anthony, and still end with Carmelo Anthony, and maybe it was the Clipper's way of covering for a beleaguered buddy, or of offering some restitution on that unfulfilled toast at Melo's wedding. Either way, Paul was wrong, dead wrong.
Jeremy Lin is the team's quarterback, the face of the franchise, and that won't change for who knows how long. Nobody saw this coming with 3:35 left in the first quarter of the Knicks' game against the New Jersey Nets the night before the Super Bowl, when a rookie starter, Iman Shumpert, picked up his second foul and left the Madison Square Garden court in favor of a scrub from Harvard.
That was the moment the Knicks became Lin's Knicks, just as surely as the 2001 New England Patriots became Tom Brady's Patriots after Mo Lewis put the hit on Drew Bledsoe. I remember standing on the sideline -- mere yards removed from the spot of the Lewis-Bledsoe impact -- when the appearance of a scarecrow trotting onto the field compelled me to turn to a colleague and offer the following in-depth scouting report:
"Tom Brady. This guy stinks."
And if I wasn't busy in Indianapolis covering Brady's fifth Super Bowl, the Lin substitution against the Nets would've inspired a similar thought. Brady was the 199th pick, a sixth-rounder in a seven-round draft. Ignored in a two-round draft, Lin was a D-Leaguer on the verge of being fired by a third NBA team. He did stink, at least until he proved he didn't.
Now Lin stands among the world's most popular athletes, even after the Miami Heat made him look like, well, a D-Leaguer on the verge of being fired by a third NBA team. Lin was bone tired and overdue for a bad game, and so he was no match for a Heat defense that rushed the passer like the '85 Bears.
The 1-for-11 from the field left many wondering if Lin's charmed gig was up, as if other opponents hadn't already decided the kid should be trapped high and early and forced to go left. One coach on the losing side of Linsanity conceded his team tried applying the same defensive strategy and simply wasn't good enough to execute it. Miami had the talent and tenacity to make it work, that's all.
|Move over Melo, Jeremy Lin is the face of the franchise. And that won't change for quite a while.|
But as the world's best basketball team, for now anyway, the Heat only confirmed that the Knicks are Lin's by building their entire game plan around stopping him, not Anthony or anyone else. What was it again that Justin Tuck said of Brady before the Giants' second Super Bowl victory over the Patriots? "The way to kill a snake is take off his head. The way to kill an offense as potent as that one is, is making sure you take care of Brady."
By giving Lin the Brady treatment, Miami paid him the ultimate compliment, and sent a not-so-subtle message to Melo, Amare Stoudemire and the rest that the Knicks will live and die on their play at the point.
This doesn't mean Lin is the Knicks' best player (Anthony still holds that title). This doesn't mean Lin should take the big Game 6 and Game 7 shots in the spring (Anthony still deserves those). This doesn't mean Lin represents the Knicks' most impressive physical talent (a declining Stoudemire and a rising Shumpert can arm-wrestle over that one).
But it does mean Lin needs to be his team's dominant personality and voice. His energy and can-do aura need to drive the Knicks from here to the end of their championship drought, if it's ever meant to end.
The 81-year-old Hall of Famer, Pete Carril, said it himself: A 23-year-old Lin is only going to get better; his speed, shooting touch and work ethic suggest as much. Through film work and honest self-examination, Lin has shown a willingness to identify and attack his weaknesses. Chances are, he'll soon be a stronger player going to his left.
The selfless approach? No, that isn't about to be sacrificed at the altar of fame and (pending) fortune. Lin won't morph into some conscience-free chucker, not when he burns to play the position like Jason Kidd plays it.
And that's encouraging news for the superstars hired to score. At heart, Lin is a pass-first quarterback who wants to make his playmakers happy. Better yet, if his receivers are covered and if his pocket is compromised, Lin has the athleticism to take off and get to the goal on his own.
Like Steve Nash before him, Lin is a perfect fit for Mike D'Antoni's system, so perfect, in fact, that he might earn the coach a new contract. If the Knicks win at least one playoff round, would they be willing to gamble that someone other than Phil Jackson -- and some offense other than the triangle -- could get what D'Antoni has gotten out of Lin?
Of course, if the Knicks go deep in the tournament it could be a moot point. They have a star handling the ball, two stars at forward, a champion defender in the paint in Tyson Chandler, and a bench loaded with perimeter shooters. Chandler and D'Antoni's aide, Mike Woodson, have also given the Knicks credibility on the defensive end of the floor.
"[Woodson] has done an amazing job there," said one NBA coach whose team recently competed against the Knicks. "In the past you could run whatever you wanted to run against them because they were just trying to outscore you, but now they make you catch the ball out farther and just make you work harder. If they keep it up they have a chance to play Miami in the conference final."
More than anyone, Lin gives the Knicks that chance. He has been many things to many people -- the feel-good story of the year, an unwitting global ambassador, a social media machine and a vehicle for important dialogue on the language of race.
For New York, he has been a franchise quarterback out of left field, like Brady to New England at No. 199. Jeremy Lin could be the Knicks' identity for years and years, and there's no turning back from that now.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.