The 2011-12 NBA season has certainly been a strange one, especially in the NBA's Atlantic Division.
Although the era of Boston's Big Three has been relatively short (now in its fifth season), it seems like an eternity since the Boston Celtics didn't win the Atlantic by a wide margin. This season, however, the division has been controlled by the Philadelphia 76ers for the first third or so of the year. The Celtics sit at an uncharacteristic 15-12, three-and-a-half games back of the Sixers.
What was perhaps even more surprising was the fact that the New York Knicks, like the Boston Celtics, have largely failed to emerge as contenders for the division title.
The Celtics and the Knicks were widely expected to hold sway in the Atlantic in 2012, but sluggish starts and a rash of injuries have plagued both teams, and with the Knicks currently sitting at 13-15, they find themselves in desperate need of a spark.
That spark may have finally come in the form of Jeremy Lin, a Palo Alto, California native and former star at Harvard who, prior to the last week-and-a-half, was largely unknown, even to many Knicks fans. That all changed once Lin exploded beginning on February 4 against the New Jersey Nets. Beginning a five-game winning streak that has brought the Knicks to within three games of Boston and six of Philadelphia, and has seen the emergence of "Linsanity," as Jeremy Lin has seemingly come out of nowhere to lead the Knicks' resurgence.
With the emergence of Lin for the Knicks, what effect could this have on New York's foremost divisional rival, the Celtics?
This may be a bit of a difficult question to answer, as a lot can, and will change in the coming days and weeks. In the absence of Carmelo Anthony, who has been out with a groin injury, Lin has largely been allowed to do what he wants with the basketball. Not only has he been dishing out assists left and right, he's shown a great ability to score, and score big. Once Carmelo returns, Lin may see fewer touches and his production may decline.
On the other hand, Amar'e Stoudemire, who has missed the last four games due to the death of his brother, will likely make a return relatively shortly. Once he returns, the Knicks gain another huge, offensive weapon, one who Jeremy Lin can pass to for a whole bunch of points.
Clearly, a more potent Knicks offense would spell serious trouble for the aging Celtics. Boston's once vaunted interior has shown signs of further deterioration in the face of age and injuries (particularly in the case of Jermaine O'Neal). If Jeremy Lin maintains his passing ability, as well as his ability to penetrate and get to the rim, the Celtics will likely be unable to stop the combined forces of Lin, Amar'e and the still dangerous Tyson Chandler. If the Knicks continue to roll while the Celtics struggle to win games, the Celtics will have an even tougher time navigating the Atlantic Division.
What may save the Celtics' hopes of contending for yet another division title is the return of Carmelo Anthony. Once Carmelo returns, much of the action will likely shift away from Lin; Carmelo needs the ball to be effective, and it's unlikely that Mike D'Antoni will let such a elite perimeter and deep scorer as Carmelo go underutilized.
This could potentially create problems for the Knicks. The team will have to find a way to balance Jeremy Lin's skills with the established offensive leader that is Carmelo Anthony. Lin and Amar'e can no doubt complement each other, but Carmelo is a bit of enigma in terms of his place on an offense with a such a potent weapon as Jeremy Lin has shown himself to be. Sure, 'Melo has the jumpshot, but Lin has been able to carry the offense for the duration of this win streak. This opens the door for potential inefficiencies that the Celtics can exploit, or at the very least drag the Knicks down enough for the Celtics to pull away in the division. If they can find their own rhythm.
The final possibility is that "Linsanity" simply dies out, and the Knicks revert to their old ways, relying on Carmelo and Amar'e to carry the load. If Jeremy Lin proves to be just a flash in the pan and returns to being another bench player with spurts of high production, then the advantage has to go to the Celtics. For all their flaws, Boston can still play enough defense to slow the Knicks down enough to let the offense keep the game close. The Celtics will no doubt remain secure in the Atlantic, and although they may not win it this year (depending on the Sixers' fortunes for the rest of the season), they will certainly stay ahead of the Knicks.
Will "Linsanity" live on? Or will the order of the NBA universe return to normal in a matter of days or weeks? The Celtics will have to watch the situation closely and be prepared for the now-rare dogfight in the Atlantic.