The night Jeremy Lin drew double coverage and the Garden lost its mind
Back in December, the Knicks signed Jeremy Lin out of necessity. The twice-cut point guard had been a star at Harvard, but New York simply hoped he could provide a few quality minutes off the bench.
By Saturday night, necessity had become desperation. With point guard Baron Davis' timetable for return moving in the wrong direction, no other viable point guards on the roster, and the Knicks sinking in the standings, coach Mike D'Antoni had to put Lin into the game.
What followed was a Frank Capra movie: 25 points in 36 minutes, seven assists, and Lin leading the Knicks to victory in front of a delirious Madison Square Garden crowd, lifting his struggling teammates as a full house chanted his name.
In the immediate wake of the drama, D'Antoni named Lin his starter. He had little to lose, even if it was unclear whether Lin's Saturday performance would be replicable before an expectant crowd and against opposition that had prepared for him.
Lin's answer Monday night: yes, and then some. With Amar'e Stoudemire out and Carmelo Anthony having to leave the game with an injury of his own, Lin scored 28 points—a new career high, like everything else he does right now—dished out eight assists, and made plays that only fed the euphoria in Madison Square Garden even more in an still unlikelier performance as New York defeated the Utah Jazz, 99-88.
“Jeremy kind of settles everything, puts everything in perspective,” a glowing D'Antoni said in his press conference following the game. “And we can build on that.”
He tried to check himself, caught up as he was in Lin's performance.
“He'll be able to—you hope, it's the second game, I don't want to get too far ahead”—but he couldn't help himself—”But I am excited. And he does give us someone on the team who can move the ball, and get good shots.”
Following the game, the beat reporters who normally wear out a path to Tyson Chandler's locker, then Stoudemire's, and finally Anthony's as the three of them appear each night, largely abandoned Chandler for Lin midway through the popular center's postgame interview. The mob scene around Lin contrasted with just last week, when Lin quietly changed out of his uniform and went on his way, usually without a question directed his way.
Lin, dressed in a gray t-shirt and tan corduroy pants, turned around as the mob pushed toward him. He was asked whether the events of the past 48 hours had surprised him.
“Oh yeah,” Lin said, smiling. “I'm not going to stand here and say I knew I'd have this. I just have a lot of gratitude that it turned out like this.”
“This” was to exceed his astonishing performance on Saturday in every way. Think it was impressive to beat the Nets, a poor team, on Saturday? Utah entered the game Monday at a respectable 13-9. Carmelo Anthony struggled on Saturday night—but Monday night, he was gone midway through the first quarter, never to return with a groin injury. Amar'e Stoudemire had foul trouble on Saturday night, but he missed the game entirely Monday night due to the death of his brother. Tyson Chandler played 36 strong minutes on Saturday night, but fouls limited him to 22 on Monday night.
So no Big Three. But that was just fine with the Garden crowd, which gave Lin easily the biggest set of cheers when the starting lineups were announced. Anthony and Chandler weren't ignored—but Lin brought the crowd to its feet before the game even began. It wouldn't be the last time.
Lin's next loud cheer came on his first pass of the game—an ordinary feed into Chandler. It was as if the Garden crowd, fearing the heroics they saw would not be repeated, wanted to cheer Lin any way they could.
He soon found Jared Jeffries on a pair of impressive looks, only to see Jeffries miss. Was the crowd groaning at the missed points, or Lin's missed assist?
Soon after, however, Lin got on the board with a lovely reverse layup. A Jeffries steal led to a break with Lin and Landry Fields, and Lin finished again. Then came a third straight possession to excite the crowd—Chandler stepped into a passing lane, hit Lin, who found Anthony, who set Chandler up for a thunderous dunk. Midway through the first period, Jeremy Lin was facilitating the offense in a way the Knicks had sought all season.
But less than a minute later, Anthony limped from the court. Chandler drew his second foul 11 seconds later. With a lineup of Lin, Bill Walker, little-used center Jerome Jordan, Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields, the Knicks were undersized and offensively challenged. They limped to the end of the first quarter ahead 19-16.
Then Lin became unstoppable. Knicks point guards have struggled to log seven assists in a game—Lin did it in the second quarter. Lobs to Chandler. Driving layups, finishing among the taller players, elevating and befuddling would-be shot-blockers. Designated perimeter shooter Steve Novak entered the game, for one purpose—launching threes—yet Lin kept finding him for open looks.
Lin would score an improbable layup, twisting his 6'3” frame to navigate the lane, and the chants grew louder from the crowd, happy for any chance to jump out of their seats and bellow, “MVP! MVP!” It was funny at first, then entertaining, and by the fourth quarter, when Lin scored 13 of his 28 points, each drive to the hoop more improbable than the last, they seemed almost to mean it.
Why not? On a night when the skinny kid who D'Antoni initially said would get minutes “if somebody gets a cold” was leading the Knicks to a win by himself, why should anything have been out of reach?
D'Antoni was asked after the game if he'd keep on using Lin so much.
“Oh yeah,” D'Antoni responded, with a smirk. “I'm going to ride him like freakin' Secretariat.”
Lin said D'Antoni had asked him if he wanted a rest, but he refused, even as he was cramping up.
“I just looked at him with fifteen minutes left, and I just thought to myself: fifteen minutes. I can do this,” Lin explained. “So he just let me do it.”
A tired Knicks team allowed Utah to draw to within six points with under three minutes left. The Jazz could sense that the Knicks were fading, and played extremely effective defense against New York, made possible by regularly double-teaming Jeremy Lin to stop him. The ball made its way around the other Knicks, the time down to a precious few seconds, and Iman Shumpert missed badly on a short jumper with two minutes left. The ball got batted into the hands of Jeremy Lin, standing behind the three-point line, as the shot clock reached one second left. Lin, who has notched a total of one three-pointer in his N.B.A. career, drained a 24-footer to ice the game.
Insanity. No one sat down for the final two minutes. It was the Madison Square Garden of Larry Johnson's four-point play, and it didn't stop until after Lin dribbled out the clock and gave an on-court postgame interview drowned out by M.V.P. chants, a standing crowd celebrating their unexpected new hero just a little longer.