By Sam Amick
July 18, 2012

LAS VEGAS -- As if the Jeremy Lin situation wasn't surreal enough already, there was this.

Knicks power forward Amar'e Stoudemire visited his bosses at the summer league here on a day of great consequence for the organization, with team owner James Dolan, general manager Glen Grunwald, coach Mike Woodson and the whole gang sitting in the same arena as the Rockets officials with whom they had engaged in such an old-school, cat-and-mouse game sparked by the global sensation known as Linsanity. Considering the tenor of the Jeremy Lin talks, it made perfect symbolic sense that the strangely chipper Stoudemire wore a shirt that featured a shark. There had been blood in these negotiating waters for days.

"I feel like Muhammad Ali," Stoudemire said Tuesday without explanation before announcing that he (and every other Knicks official, for that matter) wouldn't speak publicly until Thursday.

But the even-more-fitting shirt was the one worn by the young man begging Stoudemire to come out from behind the security guards for a picture. It was the famous No. 17 Knicks jersey worn by Lin. Stoudemire posed pleasantly with the wannabe Lin, and it would be some six hours later until that would go down a kind of strange goodbye image.

Restricted free agency doesn't usually go like this.

Team A typically puts its bid in for Team B's player, setting the terms and then waiting the allotted three days to see if the offer will be matched. With the Knicks and the Rockets, however, there was nothing normal about the events leading up to New York's announcement Tuesday night around 10:30 p.m. ET that they wouldn't match Houston's three-year, $25.1 million deal.

When one official involved in the talks was asked if this was among the more unusual experiences of his executive career, he said quickly, "Oh, yeah."

[Michael Rosenberg: Will Knicks regret letting Lin walk?]

The root of the Knicks' frustrations with the Rockets, sources said, was the fact that they broke what is seen as an unspoken rule in negotiations by changing an informal offer during the moratorium that ran from July 1 to July 11. Houston initially offered Lin a three-year, $19.5 million deal, and those figures were widely reported after it was put forth.

The Knicks, at the time, seemed more than willing to match the offer. But the Rockets would later change it to the three-year, $25.1 million deal that was much tougher for New York to swallow. The third-year salary was increased from about $9 million to nearly $15 million, a figure that -- when coupled with the NBA's new punitive luxury tax that starts in 2013-14 -- would wreak havoc on the Knicks' already-bloated 2014-15 payroll. The Rockets recently had traded point guard Kyle Lowry to the Raptors for a first-round pick, which was seen as a major part of their proposal to try to acquire Magic center Dwight Howard. They also failed to re-sign free agent Goran Dragic, creating a void at point guard that Lin will now fill.

"We no longer had Lowry or Dragic," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said in an interview with late Tuesday night, "and at that point we thought it made sense to offer him more money and increase our chances of getting him."

The Knicks, in turn, decided to take part in two days of gamesmanship, an attempt at some silly sort of retribution. As the Houston Chronicle reported, Rockets officials spent most of Saturday attempting (unsuccessfully) to physically deliver the offer sheet to Knicks officials who were dodging them at every turn.

Teams have three days to match restricted free agent offers, but the clock can't start until the offer sheet is physically delivered. After failed attempts to find Grunwald at his team's practice and even at his hotel, the offer sheet was eventually delivered via FedEx to the Knicks' offices in New York. But the uncertainty over whether the reported deadline of Tuesday at 11:59.59 p.m. ET had been established remained a point of disagreement until the end.

[Zach Lowe: What Lin's move means for Knicks, Rockets]

While The New York Times reported Tuesday afternoon that the Knicks would let Lin walk, Rockets officials and members of the player's camp were half-expecting New York to match until the very end.

"I didn't think we'd have any chance [to get Lin] after everything that happened in New York [last season]," Morey said. "I thought the Knicks would hang on to him no matter what at that point.

"I still actually thought it was more likely they would match even after that (New York Times) story. I just couldn't conceive that they would give us the shot to have him."

Morey insisted that he wasn't bothered by the nature of the negotiations.

"I think all's fair in trying to improve your team," he said. "I think the Knicks were trying to give themselves as much time to make what they thought was the best decision for them. I don't have any hard feelings. They did what they thought was best for the Knicks and we were doing what we thought was best for the Rockets."

The Knicks were still deliberating their decision in recent days, and there was no better sign of that fact than one of the team-to-team discussions they engaged in over the weekend. New York, according to sources, was considering matching the offer for Lin while also finding a handshake agreement with another team so that it could, if it so desired, deal him before the February trade deadline as part of a contingency plan. In those discussions, the Knicks -- whose acquisition of Raymond Felton was the most obvious sign that Lin was on his way out -- had targeted specific point guards with whom they could swap Lin as a way to maintain depth at the position behind Felton and another newcomer, Jason Kidd.

Lin is no Yao Ming, of course, but he is the closest thing the Rockets have had to an international attraction since the Chinese center retired in July 2011. He's sure to be good for the Rockets' business, but Lin's basketball contributions, or lack thereof, will certainly be scrutinized as he rejoins an organization that is still pushing hard to get Howard.

The Rockets -- who, like the Warriors, cut Lin last season before the undrafted, NBA Development League product had his meteoric rise in New York -- are well aware that this is their latest calculated risk. Only time will tell if it pays off, but Lin will now face widespread skepticism from the many players and even coaches who don't think a player with a 25-game track record of success is worthy of such a generous contract.

What's more, sources said Rockets coach Kevin McHale was extremely disappointed that Houston didn't retain Dragic, who signed with Phoenix. Either way, Linsanity as we know it is over. The most surreal of situations has come to a close.

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