- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- Baron Davis signed on to be Jeremy Lin before there ever was a Jeremy Lin. Davis was going to heal his bum back, drive Mike D'Antoni's ball to the basket, and throw breathless passes to Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and, yes, even Steve Novak.
Davis was a teammate of Novak's with the Los Angeles Clippers, and the first-string point guard would tell the second-string shooter he'd look for him if the coaches finally wised up and put him in the game. "I knew what he was capable of," said Davis, who described the vision of an open Novak behind the 3-point line like this:
"A layup. That's automatic."
And so Novak was automatic in the Garden on Wednesday night, raining down five 3s in the second half when the New York Knicks deleted a 12-point halftime deficit, outscored the Cleveland Cavaliers by a 71-42 count and kept the full house in place until the final minutes of a blowout, with the fans entertaining themselves by chanting for another long shot acquired on the cheap.
Not Lin this time, but Novak, a guy who scored 17 points in 17 minutes, a guy who has played in 249 NBA games and who has failed to crack the starting five in 245 of them.
"Ridiculous," D'Antoni called Novak's aim against the Cavs, and in the winning locker room, Davis would say he knew it all along. He fed Novak for two of those 3s. Of greater consequence, Davis turned his fourth game as a Knick into his first game as a reasonable facsimile of his former All-Star self, a more significant big-picture development than the one involving Novak, the stand-still shooter with the Dan Marino release.
Six weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, still recovering from a herniated disc that imperiled his career, Baron Davis played like Baron Davis. Better yet, he played like Jeremy Lin. And if Davis can play like Lin off the bench for the balance of the season, Tyson Chandler said, "It makes us extremely dangerous. If we have a guard like that playing at that high a level at all times on the floor, it just puts everybody at ease."
Lin answered his Miami meltdown with 19 points and 13 assists against one turnover and one bloodied nostril in 33 minutes, and Davis followed with four points, eight assists and no turnovers in 15 minutes. This was no mere coincidence.
"I told [Lin] before the All-Star break that he's been an inspiration and the key to really bringing this thing together," Davis said.
The undrafted kid out of Harvard has even rubbed off on a senior NBA citizen with the kind of pedigree Lin couldn't fathom: Davis was a McDonald's All-American in high school, a first-rounder out of UCLA, the No. 3 overall pick and a familiar face on every sports bar screen in America. Even after he was fired by the same Cavaliers he helped beat, deemed expendable under the league's amnesty clause, Davis had his share of high-profile suitors.
The Miami Heat wanted him. The Los Angeles Lakers wanted him. Davis chose the Garden and D'Antoni's freewheeling system over LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, and on Wednesday night, the home crowd thanked him and rewarded his selfless approach with a rousing ovation when he came off the floor.
"That's why I came here," Davis said. "I love the energy; I love the fans. They love basketball, they can appreciate good basketball ... and we gave them a show."
Lin and Davis gave them 21 of the Knicks' 30 assists. D'Antoni said he expected the backup to get stronger, healthier and better, and to regain his ability to finish at the rim. Davis was 1-for-12 from the field in his three previous games, hardening his reputation as a shoot-first, shoot-second, pass-third point, and yet D'Antoni said he "really has a vision that not many people were born with."
If it sounded like D'Antoni was talking about front-row Garden guest Magic Johnson, so be it. Davis wants to please his latest coach, because he couldn't please the ones he worked under in L.A.
Mike Dunleavy ran a system Davis found suffocating, and Vinny Del Negro publicly ripped the playmaker for being out of shape. "Mike D'Antoni's system is really built for a point guard," Davis said, "and at some point in my career I had to try that out, especially with what I went through in Los Angeles and playing with those types of coaches who were really structured and all about running a play every time.
"They never gave me the freedom to do what I'm capable of doing, so I just wanted to play and be free and have fun. ... For a good part of my career, I wasn't having fun, I wasn't really enjoying the game. I think if I'm playing a system [that fits] my talents, I'll be able to do that."
No, Davis didn't sign with the Knicks to hold the clipboard and give Lin an occasional breather. But from the best seat in the house, Davis has watched the league's most improbable star slash and gash defenses to the delight of fans from all corners of the globe.
Davis found Lin to be good enough and humble enough to take on as something of a protégé. "We're going to continue to work together," Davis said, "and read defenses and study defenses and other point guards so we always have an advantage going into every game.
"If I see things that can help him and help us as a team, I always say something. I try to watch film with him sometimes, but it's more talking to him in practice."
In games, Lin will continue to command two-thirds of the minutes, at least, and Davis will have no choice but to manage the leftovers. This wasn't Davis' vision when he rejected the Lakers and Heat. He said he's been friendly with Anthony and Chandler since they were teenagers, and he spoke of his admiration for Stoudemire. Davis thought he'd be the one throwing them the ball and turning the Garden on its ear.
But Lin is the man now, bloodied nose or no bloodied nose, and Davis is the point guard throwing second-string alley-oops to J.R. Smith for second-string reverse dunks.
On Wednesday night, the backups made the Knicks look like the NBA's deepest team. If Baron Davis keeps playing like Jeremy Lin, the Knicks have a shot to look like the NBA's best team, too.
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.
If Baron Davis keeps playing like J-Lin, the Knicks have a shot to go a long way.