Then he visited here, the city of the anti-Lins, where popular stars instantly become villains. LeBron James was in many ways the opposite to Jeremy Lin. James had perspective, which he had earned the hard way, and on Thursday he and his teammates meant to show their guest how much he had yet to learn. The Heat won their eighth straight game, 102-88, while holding Lin to eight turnovers and eight points on a dreadful 1-for-11 performance from the field.
"I can't remember another game where it was hard to just take dribbles,'' said Lin, with a hint of smile. Maybe part of him couldn't believe he had come this far, that he had become the kind of player that the championship favorites game-plan to stop. But that is what he became, and now for the next extended phase of his nascent career he is going to have to deal with the worst kind of enthusiastic opposition. "We wanted to treat him with the respect that he deserves,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "We wanted to treat him like the other impactful point guards of this league.''
Will this go down as the bursting of the legend? It should not. Instead it should be seen as the most natural part of Lin's dramatic progression. "It's hard to be Peter Pan every day,'' said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "No way in heck you come from training camp and become one of the best players in the league. That just doesn't happen.''
Everything Lin had accomplished has merit. In his first 10 starts he averaged 23.8 points and 9.4 assists amid a favorable schedule drawn from road games against bad teams and home games against inconsistent opponents. This does not diminish anything he did. What he did was unbelievable. He made big shots and his play was authentic and fearless. But he had not played against a devout contender like Miami.
The Heat had seen him drop 38 points on the Lakers the day after Kobe Bryant admitted to knowing nothing of Lin. They'd seen him step back to bomb a three over Dirk Nowitzki after he was caught in a mistaken switch with Shawn Marion. More than anything they knew what they had been put through -- and what they had put themselves through -- over the last year and a half of booing and criticism. They've been paying their dues and they weren't going to be embarrassed by somebody who hasn't paid his. They were going to insist that Lin pay up, because they were not going to allow him to be applauded and anointed at their expense.
James, the presumptive league MVP, came up with 20 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, five steals and two blocks. Dwyane Wade added 22 points and five assists, and Chris Bosh was good for 25 points and eight rebounds. More impressive was how much their defense recreated the intensity of some of their best moments of last postseason. They would trap and squeeze Lin into unsalvageable positions that led to one turnover after another. Amare Stoudemire (13 points overall and six first-half turnovers) was vulnerable as well, and Carmelo Anthony (7-of-20 for 19 points) had five of his shots blocked by a defense that closed out to shooters and galvanized around the basket. "They come at you real quick,'' said D'Antoni. "The first time you see it, the speed is overwhelming.''
Miami spent most of training camp installing its faster offense at the expense of its traditional investment in defense. Recently Spoelstra began to stress the defense again, and so now the Heat look better than they did for much of the last regular season. All eight of these consecutive wins have come by a dozen points or more, and the progression of success enabled Miami to strangle Lin without preparing anything particularly special for him. The Heat emphasized disrupting Lin in the pick-and-roll, but it was nothing they hadn't done before. This is who they are.
Afterward there were questions of whether Lin is fatigued by these three incredible weeks. "We're a no-excuse team, so fatigue really doesn't matter,'' he said. "Everyone is tired at this point.''
He might not have fully appreciated the wisdom of his own statement. For the Heat have grown exhausted too, by their own high standards. Their fatigue had little in common with Lin's. The breakthrough star didn't see this coming, whereas the Heat have generated their own fatigue as part of their larger championship strategy. They've demanded so much of themselves at both ends of the court during this winning streak that Spoelstra was happy for them to relax during the upcoming All-Star break. While the Knicks have been trying to make sense of this miracle that has come upon them, the Heat have been pushing themselves forward relentlessly.
That's why this might have been one of the healthiest games in the short, happy career of Jeremy Lin. He had produced turnovers at an unprecedented rate for a debut starter in the NBA, but up until this night he had been able to make enough big plays to overcome them. What he was forced by Miami to realize was that a higher level will be demanded of him soon. When the story fades with a few more rough nights like this one, then he will be held to a higher standard.
"We played arguably the best team in the NBA -- playing the best at this moment,'' said D'Antoni, amending himself. "They set the bar for us.''
What does it all mean? How do you make sense of a breakthrough that has never happened before? If you're the Knicks leaving the arena here late Thursday night, you realize that you're just at the beginning of a long road ahead.