NEW YORK – With great trepidation, New York Knick fans had been worried that the return of star forward Carmelo Anthony might disrupt the sudden team chemistry the Knicks had built during a season-saving, Lin-spired seven-game win streak.
It turned out that the rest of the Knicks were more than capable of upsetting that harmony all by themselves.
New York (15-16) dug a 14-point hole after the opening quarter and never led during an 89-85 loss to the New Orleans Hornets (7-23) before a buzzing sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
The loss disappointed raucous Knick fans who were hoping to see their team continue its remarkable turnaround from an 8-15 record, back to respectability ever since new point guard Jeremy Lin started running head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
But, the Hornets, led by ex-Knick Trevor Ariza, had their own winning streak (following an even worse start) to protect.
Lin matched forward Amar’e Stoudemire (12 rebounds) with a game-high 26 points, but center Tyson Chandler (ten points, 11 rebounds) was the only other Knick to score in double figures, and a sometimes out-of-control Lin committed a game-high nine turnovers – which was tied for the most in the NBA this season and nearly half of New York’s 21 for the game.
That kind of sloppy play has been the only major drawback to the otherwise refreshing spark Lin has given a team that in early February, was lifeless and headed nowhere. It was the fifth straight game and sixth in seven games in which Lin had at least six turnovers.
Admitting that he was “Careless with the ball,” Lin said, “Nine turnovers is obviously never going to get it done from your primary ball handler.”
The mature 23-year-old out of Harvard who was making only his seventh career start, accepted full responsibility for erring so often, adding, “It is on me in terms of taking care of the ball and the game in general. Everyone [gave me] credit for the last seven games, [so] I definitely deserve [the blame for] this one on my shoulders, and that is fine by me.”
D’Antoni however, said of Lin, “I thought he played well [overall].” But, while searching for the right balance between allowing for Lin’s aggressiveness and aiming to keep last week’s Eastern conference player of the week in control, D’Antoni advised Lin to let the game come to him.
“I told him he was trying to make the hardest pass out there… the home run pass… he will learn. He adjusted. He had [only] one turnover in the second half and played well,” D’Antoni said.
Ariza meanwhile, hurt his former club with a team-high 25 points, as all five New Orleans starters scored in double figures and accounted for all but seven of the Hornets’ points to lead New Orleans to a third straight victory.
After all of the hype surrounding the Lin-sanity craze during the Knicks’ winning streak, it was hard to fathom that New York would come out flat against the lowly Hornets, but they were indeed lackluster from the opening tip as an Ariza three-pointer got New Orleans out to an early 12-4 lead.
A Stoudemire jumper and a driving layup by starting forward Bill Walker (his only points in 25:44) chopped the Hornets’ lead in half by the midway point of the period, but New Orleans closed the quarter on a 15-5 run to swell its lead to 27-13.
Five of Lin’s eight first-half turnovers came in the opening period (New York’s lowest-scoring of the season), matching the low number of baskets the Knicks had in 17 first-quarter attempts, as New York missed all five of its three-pointers in the frame en route to a dismal 4-for-24 shooting night from behind the arc.
The worst offender from that distance was guard Steve Novak (just five points in 19:58 off the bench), the Knicks’ normally very reliable three-point specialist (45.7 percent), who made just 1 of 7 threes on the night.
Walker (0-for-4 from three-point range), starting forward Landry Fields (0-for-3), and reserve rookie guard Iman Shumpert (1-for-4), all of whom had been excelling with Lin at the helm of New York’s offense, each joined Novak in misfiring from three-point range.
Aside from Lin’s eight made free throws in ten attempts, the rest of the Knicks (11-for-19) struggled at the free throw line.
Other than a brief moment when New York sliced New Orleans’ lead to 29-21, the Hornets maintained a double-digit lead until the Knicks finished the half strong.
A crowd-pleasing alley-oop dunk by Fields (his only made basket in eight shots) on a lob pass from Lin capped a 10-2 run that brought New York to within 39-37 with 2:19 left in the half before a pair of free throws by Lin kept the Knicks within 43-39 by intermission.
But, the Hornets opened the third quarter on a 15-7 run to lead 58-46 halfway through the period and they led by as many as 13 points before settling for a 68-58 lead heading into the final quarter.
Having kept Lin in the game for all but two minutes during the first three quarters, D’Antoni rested his point guard for the first half of the final period.
With the newly-created Lin-ternational sensation on the bench, Shumpert (nine points, three assists, three turnovers) made a bad pass and then compounded the mistake with a bad foul on an Ariza layup, who completed a three-point play at the foul line to put New Orleans up 71-59 less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
Shumpert redeemed himself though, by scoring the next five points on a couple of free throws and a pull-up three-pointer from the left wing, before assisting on a Stoudemire jumper to cap a 7-0 run that brought the Knicks to within 71-66 and force a Hornets’ time out with 8:21 left in the game.
Another bad pass by Shumpert resulted in an Ariza dunk, but Shumpert made a running jumper and then assisted on a left corner jumper by reserve forward Jared Jeffries (his only basket and field goal attempt) which ignited the crowd to reach a deafening playoff atmosphere level, while drawing the Knicks to within 73-70.
Jeffries then made the first of two free throws to trim the Hornets’ lead to 73-71, as Lin was inserted back into the game with 5:29 remaining.
Starting guard, former Maryland standout Greivis Vasquez (15 points, game-high 11 assists, three turnovers), stole a pass from Jeffries and New Orleans capitalized on a three-point play by 6-foot-10, 245-pound Mexican rookie forward Gustavo Ayon (13 points, team-high 11 rebounds) to push the Hornets’ lead to 76-71 with 5:06 left.
Out of a New York timeout, Lin buried a step-back jumper from the right wing to move the Knicks to within 76-73, but a layup and a long, banked jumper by Italian guard Macro Belinelli sandwiched a Stoudemire layup to give New Orleans an 80-75 advantage.
Just before the Belinelli jumper, Lin missed a wide open three-pointer from the left wing.
He then made a driving layup, but center Chris Kaiman (12 points, eight rebounds) made two free throws to give the Hornets an 82-77 lead with 1:34 to go.
Helping Chandler trap Vasquez at midcourt, Lin came up with a steal that ended with a fast break, a foul on Vasquez, and two free throws by Lin that got the Knicks to within 82-80 with 1:06 left.
Ayon doubled the Hornets’ lead to 84-80 on a layup with 54.1 seconds remaining, and after Lin missed a forced, ill-advised layup, Vasquez made the first of two free throws to up New Orleans’ ahead 85-80 with 33.7 seconds remaining.
Two free throws by Lin made it 85-82, but Fields, trying to force a jump ball, grabbed Belinelli’s arm, sending him to the foul line for a pair of foul shots that gave New Orleans an 87-82 lead with 25.3 seconds left.
Novak and Fields each missed treys on the same trip and New York could never get closer than the final margin after a Stoudemire free throw closed the scoring with 11.7 seconds remaining.
There could be a small silver lining in the Knicks’ first loss since Lin became a regular part of their rotation and spawned a fan and media frenzy over the past two weeks.
Some of the crazier distractions – such as one fan on Friday night, yelling out “Lin for President!” during a quieter part of the pre-game national anthem – should according to Lin, “Die down a little,” now that the Lin-sanity era has finally tasted defeat.
The culmination of New York’s Lin-toxicating streak could allow Lin and the Knicks to finally relax and play a little looser, in the same way that a top-notch college basketball team with a long winning streak might be helped by a late season loss prior to entering an NCAA tournament.
While he was unhappy about being denied another win on Friday night, Lin acknowledged that notion, saying “I don’t think this is good because I hate losing, but… it may help me, it may help the team a little bit in terms of just having everything off the court cool down a little bit.”
What should aid Lin and his team even more is the return of Anthony, which could come as soon as the Knicks’ next game, at home against the Dallas Mavericks (20-11), who will bring a season-high six-game winning streak to MSG for a nationally televised game at 1 pm ET on Sunday.
That contest could also be the Knick debut for Anthony’s former teammate in Denver, shooting guard J.R. Smith, a streaky but capable and sometimes dangerous perimeter shooter, after the Freehold, New Jersey native was signed by the Knicks on Friday afternoon.
Smith, who is the only player in NBA history to make double-digit three-pointers in multiple games, comes to New York after a stint in China, where he began playing during the NBA’s recent lockout.