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New-look Knicks a work in progress as team falls in Carmelo's return

NEW YORK -- Two and a half weeks ago, the Knicks and Nets clashed in Madison Square Garden. It was a meeting between the 10th and 11th best teams in the East, two floundering franchises seemingly destined for failure. The Knicks had lost of 11 of 13 games when Jeremy Lin, a twice-released point guard out of Harvard, unassumingly checked into the action.

The rest is history. Lin scored 25 points in that Feb. 4 game to spark a 99-92 victory over New Jersey. He averaged 25 points and 9.5 assists over his next eight starts, improbably lifting the Knicks to .500. His story captivated the world -- a refreshingly genuine nobody-believed-in-me tale that dominated headlines from Brooklyn to Beijing.

On Monday, however, that script was flipped. Despite Lin's best efforts (21 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), the Nets upset the surging Knicks at home, 100-92. And with it, New York's roller coaster of a home stand (beat Sacramento, lost to New Orleans, beat Dallas, lost to New Jersey) took another surprising twist.

"The whole team was out of sync," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "We lost what we were doing the last eight or nine games."

That much was clear, with the Knicks displaying a carelessness that was absent against the defending champ Mavericks. It prompts the inevitable question: Will the newfound allegiance between Lin and Carmelo Anthony -- who scored just 11 points in his first game back since suffering a strained groin on Feb. 6 -- develop into the perfect union that New York so fiercely hopes?

"Any time you have new players coming back, your identity as a team is going to change," said Lin. "That's what we need to figure out, what our identity is gonna be."

At times, the nightmares concocted by talking heads -- issues with spacing; a lack of offensive concentration -- were realized. After racing to a 13-3 lead to open the game, the Knicks were outscored 39-20 over the next 14:41, shooting a paltry 8 of 24 during that span. Anthony was particularly sloppy, finishing with a game-high six turnovers, three more than the error-prone Lin.

The most representative play occurred with 6:47 left in the third quarter. Anthony tried to juke DeShawn Stevenson, attempting a stop-and-go toward the basket. The ball slipped out of his hands and sailed harmlessly out of bounds. Whether it was a result of a lay-off or him pressing, he, and the Knicks, appeared discernibly flat.

"I felt a little rusty," said Anthony. "I wasn't trying to overdo it. Get this game under my belt."

Of course, credit is due to the Nets. The vilified Kris Humphries notched another double-double (finishing with 14 points and 14 rebounds), and Deron Williams was unstoppable. He netted a game-high 38 points, shot a prolific 8-of-14 from distance -- including three in a span of 45 seconds -- and nearly outscored the Knicks by himself (18 to 22) in the third quarter. He cemented his reputation as one of the league's best point guards.

"Williams played out of his mind tonight," said Amar'e Stoudemire.

Williams also left a friendly reminder for Lin: The second time around, the league won't come so easy.

"I think he's becoming a marked man a little bit," said D'Antoni. "But I think we make too much out of individual matchups."

After electrifying the Garden on Sunday, the Knicks lulled it to sleep. And with a grueling schedule on the horizon -- 10 of their next 14 opponents boast winning records -- things are about to get undoubtedly tougher.

"We have to get some things sorted out," said D'Antoni. "We have to figure out the type of team we have."

But here's thing about this Knicks' season, unlike any in recent memory: Each game seems to take on colossal significance. Each loss forebodes future doom. Each win amplifies expectations. Similar to the Heat last season, the Lin-era Knicks have become the definitive story in sports. They're under a media microscope: Anything -- good or bad -- seems possible.

But we only know so much. Lin remains a revelation, his heroics outweighing his turnovers. Anthony and Stoudemire can still produce like All-Stars, and New York's role players (Steve Novak, Tyson Chandler, Landry Fields, J.R. Smith) are learning to adjust. The maturation period will take time and growing pains.

Monday's loss at Madison Square Garden was part of that process. And while certainly disappointing, it's not catastrophic.

"Obviously we're not happy with how it went," said Lin. "But sometimes you need to go through times likes these to become a better team."

In the back wall of the Knicks' locker room, adjacent to a massive plasma TV, a dry-erase board lists the team's season notes. Each bullet is penned in blue, emphasizing fundamentals stressed since AAU. But above the X's and O's, a separate message is written in caps: Keep Building Our Great Team Chemistry.

That's the test moving forward. Anthony is back. Baron Davis is back (he scored three points in 9:40 of playing time). Now it's up to the Knicks -- and their transcendent point guard -- to continue defying the odds.

If nothing else, Melo is fully on board.

"I want Jeremy to have the ball," he said. "I want him to create for me. I want him to create for Amar'e. There are gonna be times where I'm the distributor, but for the most part, I want Jeremy having the ball in his hands."

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