NEW YORK – Somehow, the most improbable story in NBA history found himself in the most improbable place on Friday night: The ball in his hands, Madison Square Garden on its feet, and the fourth quarter genius of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant determined to obliterate this burgeoning mythology. Out of Bryant, had come a barrage: twisted, contorted fades, a self-pass off the backboard, the A-list arsenal out of the world’s most gifted scorer.
Somehow, Jeremy Lin never flinched. Somehow, Jeremy Lin never let himself become a spectator, never stopped to wonder what in the world he was doing out here. The ball was so safe, so snug, in his hands. There was such an easy effortlessness to the downright diabolical manner with which he dismantled the Lakers and Bryant. Sheer hysteria had thundered down on the Garden floor, a phenomenon called Linsanity, and the most polished, most poised, presence happened to be Lin.
This kid out of nowhere – out of Harvard University, out of the Reno Bighorns and Erie Bayhawks – had done it again, done it with a devastating 38 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals in the Knicks’ 92-85 victory over the Lakers.
“Players don’t come out of nowhere,” Bryant said.
What he was trying to say was this: The talent’s there, but sometimes the opportunity isn’t. It takes the right circumstances and timing, the right coach, right system. And sometimes, it takes desperation to try anything. And for these New York Knicks, well, Jeremy Lin constituted anything.
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Four games, four victories for these Knicks. Four games, and he’s transformed these Knicks in a way that no one can fully describe, fully believe. Bryant has made a career out of torching the Knicks, leaving the Garden to ovations. He’s scored 50 points here, even 60.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Bryant had been bemused over this Lin story. He wanted details, wanted to know the fuss. “Well, he’s got to deal with me now,” Bryant said. Somehow, Lin did. Another crescendo for him, another staggering performance in a week where he had gone for 25 points and seven assists, 28 and eight and 23 and 10.
Here came the Lakers, and here was Lin popping 3-pointers and twisting layups and free throw upon clutch free throw. Here came Lin to stop Kobe, and yes, stop the NBA cold.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni marveled. “I have never seen this. What he’s doing is amazing.”
It isn’t the scoring with Lin. No one in the history of the NBA has scored as much in his first three starts, but this has nothing to do with the statistics. It’s the feel, the touch, the spirit and the purity of it all. No Amar’e Stoudemire. No Carmelo Anthony. And it doesn’t matter what spare parts are thrown together with Lin because he’s elevated everyone, transformed five fingers into a fist.
“It’s a completely different team,” center Tyson Chandler said. “You can’t look at this team the same.”
Chandler won a title with the Dallas Mavericks a season ago, played with Jason Kidd and hadn’t come to New York to sell false hopes with false prophets. Four games with Lin, and he knows what they have with him. “He just has a pace and a confidence,” Chandler said. “He just keeps coming. I haven’t seen anything like this. He’s taken us all by surprise … us, the league.
“He’s not a fluke.”
That’s a message to Anthony: Don’t mess this up. Stoudemire will return to the Knicks on Monday, and Lin will be a godsend for him. They’ll play pick-and-roll basketball, fit seamlessly together. Out with a groin injury, Anthony watched Lin with a pensive eye, at times devoid of the exuberance of his teammates, at others rollicking along with everyone else. He has to understand: Despite a max contract, his All-Star seasons, his face on the Garden marquee, suddenly Anthony has to fit into Jeremy Lin’s Knicks. Just four games, and yet that’s no exaggeration. Four games, and here’s an unmistakable truth: These Knicks are following Lin.
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“We are a team,” D’Antoni said. “His personality has rubbed off on the guys.”
Before D’Antoni had run out of players to try for these Knicks a week ago, before he had thrown Lin into a game with the New Jersey Nets, the Knicks’ front office had a decision to make: Do we guarantee Lin’s contract for the rest of the season, or release him with Tuesday’s deadline?
Knicks executive Mark Warkentien had been calling trusted associates in the NBA’s D-League, league sources told Yahoo! Sports, and asking them: Who does Lin play like? Who’s a good comparison? The Knicks had to make a decision based on old information, old scouting reports. And then, finally, D’Antoni dispatched Lin into the game against the Nets. Here was the answer, the unfolding of a week that has made Lin a sporting and cultural spectacle.
“A great story,” Bryant said. “It’s a testament to perseverance and hard work. A good example for kids everywhere.”
Those who worked with Lin in the D-League a year ago will tell you: He’s so grounded, so smart, so savvy, that he’s the perfect person to keep his bearings within a world exploding around him. Lin shrugs and simply says, “I am not really too worried about proving anything to anybody.”
All these years of futility here, all these saviors marching into Madison Square Garden with the biggest names, the biggest reputations. Stephon Marbury and Isiah Thomas. Larry Brown and Carmelo Anthony. Big noise, big promises, and yet dysfunction and disillusionment rule the day. Soon, it’s onto someone else. Someone else is coming, and fresh salvation promises to be on its way. It’s the ultimate shell game with these Knicks, a reflection on a contaminated franchise culture.
For the first time, it feels like the Knicks opened a window and let the freshest of air inside the building. This time, salvation had come off the waiver wire and crashes on his brother’s couch in the city. This time, salvation still gets stopped at Madison Square Garden security, suspected of being one of the team’s trainers – not its point guard.
Salvation is fleeting and often temporary, but something about Lin’s game seems to have such staying power. “He comes up with ideas,” D’Antoni said. “He’s reading everything well. That’s rare.”
So rare, so improbable. Everyone stayed inside the Garden, listened to Lin’s on-court interview over the Garden sound system. M-V-P, they chanted. M-V-P. People stayed in seats, screaming, yelling, snapping photos. Out there, all alone, those gangly arms, that baby face – well, Lin hardly looks the part. That’s the beauty of him, of this story. That nothing is how it’s supposed to be, how we’ve ever witnessed a star burst onto the scene.
Twenty-four hours earlier, and Kobe Bryant had been bemused over the Jeremy Lin story. Kobe always came to the Garden, and always had his way.
And now, the fourth quarter, the victory, the storyline, the thunder tumbling down onto the Garden floor belonged to the improbable, incredible Jeremy Lin. “Enjoy it,” Bryant would say late in the locker room. “They’ll receive judgment next season.”
This was Bryant’s grudging show of respect, his way of acknowledging this kid had become worth seeking a measure of revenge. The greatest player on the planet had come to obliterate the mythology of Jeremy Lin, and only played a part in growing it. Everyone left Madison Square Garden a little dazed on Friday night, a little stunned and perhaps no one so much as Jeremy Lin himself.
All hell is breaking loose around these Knicks, around this league, and Jeremy Lin keeps coming and coming and coming. Somehow, he was the biggest star on the floor Friday. Somehow, this night, this week, this point guard job, belong to him.
Somehow, Jeremy Lin.