MINNEAPOLIS — New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni tried his best to remain calm. For days he had talked down excited observers after Jeremy Lin emerged for the first time last week and suddenly was cast as a star.
D’Antoni insisted it was just one game. Then when it happened again, he cautioned that it was early; it was just two games.
It stretched to four games. Each one had gotten better, each one added to a quickly growing legend, and each one drew more worldwide attention and accolades.
Each game also seems like a showcase, and the fifth and latest was a duel with the electric rookie, Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The pair had their moments right to the end. Rubio drove in against Tyson Chandler with 39.9 seconds left and the Timberwolves clinging to a one-point lead. He leaned left, flicking the ball left-handed just over the outstretched hand of the 7-foot-1 center, and off the glass and in. The crowd rose as the Garden does for Lin.
And then Lin, who had struggled badly throughout the second half, fed Steve Novak for a game-tying three-pointer. He then drove to the basket, drawing a foul with 4.9 seconds left. He missed the first free throw, but with the crowd in full throat, drained the second for a lead and the Knicks escaped with a 100-98 win, their fifth straight.
It didn’t have the buzz — or the results — of Friday’s matchup with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Both young guards struggled at times; Lin endured an 0-for-6 third quarter and a 1-for-13 second half. But in the end, he had piled up 20 points, giving him 89 over his first four starts — the most by any player in his first four starts since the ABA-NBA merger, breaking the mark held by Allen Iverson.
Rubio turned over the ball twice in the final seconds. The heroes were Iman Shumpert with 20 points, and Novak with 15, both off the bench, and Kevin Love with 32 points and 21 rebounds.
But the show was the kids.
Late in the third quarter, Chandler was tangled up with Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic on one end of the court, then he ran upcourt and right into the chest of Pekovic and shoved the 290-pounder. Chandler was whistled for a technical foul, which broke a 73-73 tie and started a run of five straight points for Minnesota, helping the Wolves to an 87-82 lead at the end of the third quarter.
As for Lin, D’Antoni isn’t calling for calm anymore. Well, he did say, “Again, it’s still early.” But he followed that by eschewing his advice and praising the point guard.
“He’s so good,” D’Antoni said after Lin’s 38-point performance Friday. “He’s all about the team. His defense is good. His energy is good. His personality rubs off on everybody.
“Now we’ve got him and Tyson and guys like that; it’s becoming a lovefest. It’s becoming sloppy. But stuff like this, good people, and you play the game the right way and you play hard, you start to feel something in your heart. When you do that, anything is possible.”
It seems an appropriate time to take a step back and remember that Lin was undrafted out of Harvard, and is just the fourth Asian-American player in the NBA. He is a man who was waived from two teams this season, demoted to the Developmental League by the Knicks last month, and probably was not far off from being released again when the chance arrived.
Reality and history tell you that this just doesn’t happen. Mistakes are made, for sure, and the D-League castoff becomes a useful accessory. But this?
“Sometimes a guy comes from the bench and he’s that glue guy,” Chandler said. “But he’s coming in and being the guy. It’s just incredible.”
Four straight wins entering Saturday and averaging 28.5 points and eight assists per game in the stretch. It has cemented him in place as the Knicks’ starting point guard and warranted praise reserved for the greatest in the game.