Commentary

J.R. could be game-changer for Knicks

Smith's emergence would turn Bockers into serious Eastern Conference contenders

Updated: February 20, 2012, 11:15 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- No one with any sense can argue against the legitimacy of Jeremy Lin right now. Linsanity was validated again on Sunday inside Madison Square Garden, with the NBA champions serving as the latest victim, but someone else will need to step up for the New York Knicks to truly become a threat in the Eastern Conference.

Contrary to popular belief, his name isn't Steve Novak, 14 fourth-quarter points Sunday and all.

J.R. Smith showed up on the world's biggest stage Sunday afternoon and before anyone could take a deep breath, he had already displayed why he's in town. Three 3-pointers in the first quarter. Fifteen points off the bench. And if you listened intently enough, you almost found yourself hearing whispers of, "Landry who?"

"Say what you will, but J.R. can play," Dallas Mavericks sharpshooter Jason Terry said, following the Mavs' 104-97 loss to the Knicks. "He's definitely the dude to give them that lift. He can shoot from anywhere. Score from anywhere. He's tough. He defends and he has no conscience. That means he's not scared. That helps come playoff time, and it's fair to assume [the Knicks] will be in the postseason, so things could get very interesting."

They already are.

Lin was nothing short of sensational Sunday. So much so that it's almost insulting to focus on his turnovers as much as we've been doing. When you've committed 52 turnovers in eight starts and everyone's still salivating over how well you can play, that speaks to what you are as a player (evidenced by his 28-point, 14-assist performance Sunday) -- and where you are capable of taking a team.

"He can't do it alone, though," Terry explained. "The elite in this league can't, so you know he won't. But give the Knicks credit. Since they went out and got J.R., obviously they know that. When Carmelo (Anthony) comes back and you put them two on the floor together with Lin, look out."

[+] EnlargeJR Smith
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesAt 6-foot-6, J.R. Smith can do it all from the shooting guard or small forward position.

Notice how Terry didn't mention Landry Fields.

Terry meant no disrespect toward Fields. In fact, he didn't mention him at all. But in this game called hoops, in which profound respect warrants verbiage without solicitation, Terry's unintentional omission speaks volumes.

Smith has been one of the premier 3-point shooters in the game over the past five seasons, meaning a top-five player in that regard. He has hit better than 38 percent from beyond the arc, nearly 40 percent in three of the past four seasons. He's 6-foot-6, can play the 2 or 3 positions on the floor, can defend both as well, and doesn't need Lin to get his shot for him.

Character-wise, Smith's reported tardiness and temperamental behavior may very well end up being an unwelcome addition to the Knicks, but everyone has a clean slate when they're new to the party, and folks are in a celebratory mood. And that's exactly how the Knicks should feel considering what they're chasing.

Once Anthony returns, even if he and Lin mesh well, and Amare Stoudemire amps his game up to characteristic levels, the Knicks proved last season what damage can be caused by a gaping hole at the 2-guard spot.

For all of Landry Fields' pristine character, hard-working, good-soldier ways, it didn't help the Knickerbockers when they had a postseason series against the Boston Celtics and their starting shooting guard was so embarrassingly absent, Knicks fans wondered aloud why he bothered to put on a uniform.

"We need more offense," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni has been saying for weeks. "We needed another scorer," he added unapologetically. And this is from a coach who gives everyone except the equipment manager a license to shoot 3s. So what does that say about how he feels about his shooting guard?

D'Antoni won't say it, so I will.

Fields can play. He's a good kid. He has played even better since Lin has been in the lineup, exhibiting the kind of aggression you'd expect from someone playing his position, as opposed to the 2 points he averaged during last season's playoffs. But because he was so anemic at such an important time last season, the Knicks couldn't afford to sit around and assume that was an aberration, with so much on the line. They needed an insurance policy, and they got one.

"That's what I'm here for, baby," Smith smiled and echoed after the game.

If Smith produces, it changes everything.

At the moment, not much change is needed. Not with Lin registering huge numbers. With Tyson Chandler (14 points, 10 rebounds) putting up double-doubles. With Fields still managing to chip in 13 points on 50 percent shooting (6-of-12), and defense being important for a change. But it's always nice to cover yourself -- especially with Miami, Orlando, Chicago and Boston lurking.

The difference between fans and teams is that the teams actually have the players to do something about it. And when they lock in on Lin, "it'll be the job of others to help out and pick up the slack," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle explained. "He won't continue to score like this. But as difficult as that may be for them, it's a lot easier to stomach when you have legitimate help."

Obviously, the Knicks feel they do.

Do they really?

We'll see.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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