When the Wizards get trounced at home, the fans at Verizon Center usually to hit the exits early or send them to the locker room to a chorus of boos. But after the Wizards’ disconcerting 107-93 loss on Wednesday against the undermanned New York Knicks, most of the 17,376 fans in attendance stuck around, stood up and applauded — Jeremy Lin and the Knicks.
It was a troubling scene for the woeful Wizards, who haven’t given their fans much to rally behind and allowed their home arena to morph into Madison Square Garden South. The Wizards are used to feeling like guests when the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston, Chicago and now Miami Heat come to town. But even as Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose have heard “MVP!” chants, nothing compared to the reaction of the audience with the Knicks — and especially, everybody’s favorite underdog, Lin — in town.
You’d think fans would be upset that Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were gone and want a refund for their tickets. Instead, they only booed when Lin picked up his second foul in the first quarter and was forced to head to the bench with his second foul. Other than that, the Wizards were simply a distraction until the next Lin layup or high-rising bank shot, Tyson Chandler dunk or Steve Novak three-pointer.
It was entertaining — and embarrassing for the supposed hosts.
“When you play against certain teams, you know the crowd is against you sometimes,” John Wall said after scoring a game-high 29 points on a night when it seemed only he and Trevor Booker came ready to compete for the Wizards.
But the crowd wasn’t necessarily against the Wizards (5-21), so much as it was for Lin, the Harvard alum who in less than a week has emerged as a winning lottery ticket found buried in the couch for the Knicks.
In his third game consecutive stellar performance, and just his second career start, Lin efficiently sliced and diced the Wizards and generated considerable excitement if he did something simple (make an uncontested layup) or spectacular (drive around Wall for an uncontested dunk).
See the key word there: uncontested. Because the Wizards were dizzied and confused trying to keep up with Lin and appeared content with letting him get into the lane for layups instead of making him shoot jumpers. The times the Wizards decided to clog the lane, Lin either tossed a lob to Chandler or dished to Novak. Chandler had 25 points - two shy of his career high - and 11 rebounds. Novak made five three-pointers for the second game in a row and added 19 points. Lin finished with a career-high 10 assists and 23 points.
“The biggest letdown was our failure to adjust to what they were doing,” Maurice Evans said after the game. “They executed extremely well. You have to give them credit for that. Jeremy Lin made all the right plays all night long, played very unselfish, and as a result, he ends up with 20-plus points, 10 assists. He got all those guys going, and frankly, they ran the same play literally every time.”
Lin continued his exceptional roll since exploding for a then-career-high 25 points in a win Saturday over New Jersey. According to a league source, Lin needed to play well that night against the Nets or risk getting cut. He topped that with career-highs 28 points and eight assists in a win over Utah two days later. His contract was guaranteed on Tuesday for the rest of the season.
This, from a player who went undrafted, has been cut by two teams, including his hometown Golden State Warriors, and was in the NBA Developmental League just three weeks ago. From hanging by a thread, to getting the seemingly dysfunctional Knicks (11-15) back on track with three straight wins. From hapless to hero.
“Can’t take anything away from him,” said Coach Randy Wittman, whose son, Ryan, dueled with Lin when he played at Cornell. “The kid’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s obviously been doing that, ever since he’s had this opportunity with New York.”
The unexpected production has made him a phenomenon who has captured the imagination of Ivy Leaguers, Asian-Americans (he is the first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent) and Christians (he is open about his beliefs). He is garnering sizable attention from local Chinese reporters, who never had much reason to get giddy when Yi Jianlian played for the Wizards, and has the New York media hype machine well behind him.
“Last year? No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have imagined this. At the same time, it’s just a blessing from God and I’m just along for the ride,” Lin said. “I’m not really too worried about proving anything to anybody right now.”
So far, he is making believers of his gushing teammates and Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni, who has been on the hot seat for most of a disappointing season in New York. Lin has given the Knicks a competent point guard who can execute D’Antoni’s offense while placing the other players in their correct positions on the floor. It has made a difference and produced some wins.
When asked if Lin reminded him of any past or current player, D’Antoni said, “That’s pretty easy, but I’m not going to go there,” refusing to mention two-time most valuable Steve Nash, whom he coached in Phoenix.
“He plays the game at a high level and we’ll try to keep him there,” D’Antoni said. “He’s just starting his journey and he has a long way to go. He stays grounded, and keeps going, having fun like this, there is no reason he can’t get better.”
As for the Wizards, the reaction from the “home” fans won’t get any better before they embark on a five-game road trip on Sunday. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh coming to town on Friday, they will likely have a difficult time winning over a crowd that seems more concerned with the visitors these days.
And justifiably so.