NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 29: Jeremy Lin #17 of the New York Knicks reacts during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden on February 29, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
A month ago, the New York Knicks were toiling and in danger of falling out of contention in the Eastern Conference. Add a little Jeremy Lin and a culture change into the mix, and the Knicks are vastly improved and right back in the race.
They tried everything. Stephon Marbury, David Lee, Tracy McGrady. Seemingly no one could lead the Knicks back to the promised land. Even when the team signed Amar'e Stoudemire and traded for Carmelo Anthony, it still finished with a middling record and was swept in the first round of last year's playoffs. Clearly, there were problems. But nobody could figure it out. Something had to change, and quickly.
Who would have thought that change would come in the form of an injury to Baron Davis?
Of course, that injury paved the way for one of the most improbable stories the sport of basketball has seen, as a second-year benchwarmer from Harvard, Jeremy Lin, took the league by storm.
Since the time of Lin's emergence, this Knicks team has looked like a completely different bunch. Prior to Linsanity's beginning, the Knicks were up to their usual tricks (or lack thereof, I should say). New York had lost two in a row and 11 of 13 and was quickly fading out of playoff contention, a sign of real mediocrity in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
With Lin elevated to a starting role, the Knicks became a force, winning seven straight and 11 of 13 games. The personnel swap certainly played a big role in New York's new-found success, but Lin has helped the Knicks with far more than scoring and passing. More importantly, Lin has helped usher in a complete culture change.
What has changed since Lin ascended?
"Everything," Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni said before his team's Sunday loss to the Boston Celtics. "I think the biggest thing, the mindset. Where we are with trying to become a good team is just night and day. We were searching frantically, now we've found it, now we've just got to prove it. Before we hadn't found it, but now everything has changed."
Knicks guard Landry Fields agreed with his coach about the team's culture change, and while he certainly thinks that Lin's emergence has helped a lot, he doesn't think it's the entire reason for the turnaround.
"I definitely think it's a big part," Fields said. "It's definitely guys having to buy into everything that we're doing, so I think [Lin] was probably something that ignited it, and everybody bought in."
Fields and Lin are alike in the fact that both attended elite academic universities, and neither was considered a legit NBA prospect coming out of school. Yet here they are, playing and succeeding at their sport's highest stage.
"It just depends on the individual," said Fields, who graduated from Stanford. "It doesn't matter where you come from. If you have the drive and determination to make it in the NBA, or whatever you want to do, your background shouldn't matter."
Linsanity took a day off for most of the Knicks' game against the Celtics on Sunday, which New York lost in overtime, 115-111. Lin scored just six points through three quarters before scoring six in the fourth, helping to lead his team back into the game to force overtime. Lin's effectiveness waned in the extra period, though, as he only made one of the seven shots he took and was held scoreless in five minutes.
"They did a good job of controlling the paint for sure," Lin said. "They sent a lot of bodies and they had me take a lot of tough shots. I didn't get a lot of easy stuff today, but still, in my opinion, I should have finished a lot of those shots. So hopefully next time we play them I'll be able to hit the same shots."
"The thing about Jeremy is that he's going to make some mistakes, he's got a learning curve" said D'Antoni. "There's no way you can throw him in here first time he ever does it and expect it to be perfect, but he finds a way to be very positive in the end of games, hit the big three and a couple of other shots. It was good and he's going to be good. Just a matter of going through some learning experiences, but I thought overall he's good."
Aside from Sunday's loss, Lin has been razor sharp. Through his first six starts, Lin scored more 20 points and had more than seven assists in each game. One of those games included an amazing 38-point performance against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in a 92-85 victory. Lin averaged nearly a double-double in February with 20.9 points and 8.4 assists.
One of the primary concerns in the early stages of Lin's stardom was how he would mesh with superstars Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, both of whom were out at the time of his breakthrough. (Anthony was recovering from a groin injury while Stoudemire was away from the team dealing with the death of his brother). Lin was certainly good on his own, and some wondered if tossing Melo and Amar'e back into the mix would mess up a great thing. As it turns out, it didn't. Not one bit.
"I think he's fit in great," Fields said. "I think he's still doing what he's doing, and even off that he'll continue to grow."
Lin and the Knicks still have a tough road ahead of them. Sunday's loss was certainly a setback, as New York now sits at 18-19, three and a half games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for first place in the Atlantic Division. If the season were to end today, the Knicks would be in the playoffs, clinging onto the final seed.
There's still work to be done, and the Knicks know what they have to do to keep the wins coming.
"Just continue to build, not be complacent with where we're at right now, understand we still have a lot of games left," Fields said. "A lot can happen in that time."
Gethin Coolbaugh is the regional editor for SB Nation Boston.