John Wall hunkered down into his defensive stance, looking over his shoulder for New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler. Trying to anticipate a screen, the Washington Wizards point guard jumped back as Knicks counterpart Jeremy Lin did a crossover dribble. And before Wall could turn his head, Lin was already blowing past him toward a wide-open lane.
Jordan Crawford and Maurice Evans stood frozen as Lin dunked and screamed with such excitement that the bandage on his chin came loose.
In less than a week, Lin has gone from being a former Harvard standout, cut by two NBA teams, to an unlikely phenomenon for the Knicks. In Wednesday night’s 107-93 win over the Wizards, Lin brought his inspiring story and surprisingly efficient game to Verizon Center, where a pro-Knicks crowd ignored the fact that its team was missing its all-star duo, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, and responded with glee to Lin’s every dish and basket.
After Lin finished with 23 points and a career-high 10 assists, Wizards Coach Randy Wittman had to absorb an equally painful text message from his son, Ryan, who played against Lin for four years in the Ivy League at Cornell.
“He told me that they did a much better job guarding him than we did tonight,” Wittman said with an uncomfortable chuckle. “Makes Dad feel good.”
The Wizards did little to satisfy their coach, as the Knicks obliterated them in the pick-and-roll, with Lin repeatedly finding cutters to the basket or shooters camped out — often wide-open — on the wings. Chandler benefited from several of the passes, as he scored a season-high 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Steve Novak came off the bench to connect on five three-pointers and finish with 19 points. Reserve Iman Shumpert had 17 points and Landry Fields added 16 as the Knicks (11-15) won their third in a row — the last two coming without Stoudemire, whose brother was killed in a car accident on Monday, or Anthony, who suffered a strained right groin in the first quarter of a victory against Utah later that day.
“I always expect to do better. It doesn’t matter who you are playing against. Right now, after this, after this game, I wish they would’ve played,” Wittman said of Stoudemire and Anthony. “We got beat off the dribble a lot. And we had fouls in reaching instead of moving our feet. They were the aggressors that had us on our heels from a defensive standpoint.”
Wittman said he didn’t think his players overlooked the undermanned Knicks. “Oh, gosh. You know I hope not. If they do, shame on us.”
Wizards forward Trevor Booker said during Wednesday morning’s shoot-around that since his team lost to New York by three points last month in a game that featured Stoudemire and Anthony, the rematch without them was a contest “we should win.”
Considering the Wizards (5-21) didn’t have Andray Blatche (left calf strain) or Rashard Lewis (sore right knee) and have already lost to Chicago without Derrick Rose, Boston without two all-star starters, Toronto without Andrea Bargnani and Houston without Kevin Martin, it’s difficult to think of many nights when they should feel like the superior team.
“I think that’s the most frustrating thing is throughout the season, already we’ve played a number of teams that have missed their star players or key players, and I don’t think we’ve yet to capitalize on those situations,” veteran swingman Evans said. “Although we’re missing some players as well, it was just a golden opportunity for us to gain some momentum off a win against Toronto.”
The Wizards have not won consecutive games since April and squandered one of Wall’s best performances. Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, was determined to not get upstaged by an undrafted upstart and led the Wizards with 29 points and six assists. He showed more confidence in his perimeter jumper as he did a crossover dribble and buried a shot over Lin, and later threw down an emphatic slam over Lin on a fast break in the third quarter.
“I know how good he is,” Wall said of Lin. “If you're a guard that can run the floor and penetrate the floor pretty good with the team with the way Coach [Mike] D’Antoni runs his offense, and that's what he's doing right now.”
Lin was undeterred and responded a few minutes later in the third with an unexpected driving dunk that gave the Knicks a 72-66 lead and brought the fans out of their seats.
“Just one of those in-a-moment things,” Lin said. “I think they messed up on their coverage, so I was able to get free.”
With seemingly more than half of the arena responding to every movement from Lin or any other Knicks player, the Wizards faced the daunting task of trying to win in Madison Square South — and they wilted.
Booker had 17 points, but no other Wizard scored in double figures. Nick Young and Crawford combined to score just 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting. JaVale McGee had eight points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots, but he was limited to just 20 minutes as he spent most of the night in foul trouble and appeared helpless trying to keep up with Chandler and Lin.
“We’re a family here, you get your jerseys on and go out and play. We knew who they had and who they didn’t have. They took advantage of us,” Wall said. “They were pretty tough to stop.”