NEW YORK -- The ball kicked back out towards halfcourt and suddenly, the fate of the game rested on Jeremy Lin's slender, 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame. Six minutes on the clock, up eight, national television and Kobe Bryant starting to get warmed up, Lin stared down Pau Gasol, the four-time All-Star and the two-time NBA champion. Lin's eyes darted from left to right, his mind processing everything in front of him.
For all of their star power, for all of their wealth, the man who may save the Knicks' season earns the NBA minimum, sleeps on his brother's couch and less than a month ago wore a uniform with "Erie" across the chest. Jeremy Lin pumped in 38 points in New York's 92-85 win over the Lakers on Friday night, the fourth straight game he has tallied 23 or more. A Madison Square Garden crowd that has stood behind Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier and Patrick Ewing has united behind Lin, a four-time D-Leaguer and a two-time waiver casualty who has breathed new life into a doomed season.
"You don't see many guys play like this...in their whole career," said Mike D'Antoni. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I've never seen it."
D'Antoni likens Lin to Steve Nash, a comparison that is both awkward, yet appropriate. Lin is not Nash, doesn't have his awareness, doesn't have his unique skills. But there is something very Nash-like about Lin, the way he probes the paint, never surrendering his dribble, never taking his eyes off his teammates. Lin added seven assists to his scoring explosion, expertly operating out of the pick-and-roll and confounding the Lakers defense with his dribble penetration.
"He just has this pace and confidence," said Tyson Chandler. "He just keeps coming. You have to love a kid like that."
No one loves Lin more than D'Antoni, the embattled coach who is finally on steady ground. Smart, steady point guard play is central to D'Antoni's system, one that thrived in four full seasons with Nash at the helm. But with Raymond Felton traded and Chauncey Billups amnestied, D'Antoni has battled through this season with playmakers who were either incapable (Toney Douglas), unready (Iman Shumpert) or unable (Mike Bibby) to handle the job. Lin doesn't dabble in the spectacular, doesn't make many eye-popping plays. He merely plays the position like someone born to do it.
"Coach D'Antoni is an offensive genius," said Lin. "He puts new plays in every single game. Every game at the walk through, he will do something different. He makes us look good."
The hype around Lin will continue to grow, if that's even possible. Lin fever has gripped Manhattan. Asian media has descended on the Garden in numbers so high the Knicks PR staff has lost count. Lin's name is on signs everywhere. LIN-DIESEL. SUPER LIN-TENDO. SHOTS ARE FAL-LIN'. Lin picked up 60,000 followers on Twitter in the last week and on Sina (the Chinese version) he has added 60,000 more. A local Modell's reportedly sold out of 62 Lin jerseys in two hours on Friday and stores across the city have stacked up orders for hundreds more. To peruse the Knicks website you must pass through a page featuring an image of Lin, with an offer to download an app for the latest Lin-sanity video.
Lin won't be able to continue this blistering pace, not with Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony due back in the lineup next week. But he won't fall out of the lineup, either. "Players don't usually come out of nowhere," said Kobe Bryant. "If you go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there but no one ever noticed."
Lin will have some difficulties the second time through the league, as teams collect more film on him and dissect the weaknesses in his game. He will have the tall task of distributing the ball to a pair of stars who only know how to play with it and will have to keep his chin up when one of them expresses frustration at not getting it. Part of the job, you know. Part of being a point guard.