PHILADELPHIA — The Broadway spotlight demands a target, and it will find an abundance of them Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
It will be a night for superstar players doing superstar things, leaving little room for sentimental indulgences and what-might-have-been ruminations, or so Jeremy Lin hopes.
“I’m hoping,” he said, “I’ll be a subplot.”
Lin smiled thinly, a subtle acknowledgement that he may never enjoy that luxury in New York.
Twenty months have passed since Lin—the undrafted, twice-waived Harvard point guard—became Linsanity, the global phenomenon. Sixteen months have passed since the Knicks, in a decision they have never seen fit to explain, let Lin walk away.
Everyone has moved on now, to various states of satisfaction.
The Knicks had their best season in a decade, winning 54 games with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd running the offense. Lin, liberated from Garden politics and locker room jealousies, enjoyed a solid, if occasionally bumpy, campaign with the Rockets.
Circumstances have changed, for everyone.
The Knicks are reeling, having lost four of their first seven games amid a swell of boos and “Fire Woodson” chants. The Rockets now belong to Howard and Harden. Lin has surrendered his starting job to Patrick Beverley.
Linsanity seems like an eternity ago, and Lin seems altogether fine with that.
“Two years ago, I was just trying to make it, hoping I would be on a team,” he said. “Fifteenth man, it didn’t even matter to me—just as long as I’m on the team. I always try to take a step back and remember the journey from a bigger picture.”
The Lin skeptics, which included Anthony and his camp, surely see vindication in Lin’s apparent decline from phenomenon to footnote. Many scouts viewed Lin as a modest backup, nothing more.
Yet just as it was premature to anoint Lin a star, so too is it premature to pen the epilogue to Linsanity, or to frame his move to the bench as the final word on his career.
Lin just turned 25 in August and just began his second season as a full-time rotation player. His evolution is ongoing, as evidenced by his newly refined jump shot.
Lin is the Rockets’ third leading scorer, averaging 18.1 points per game while shooting a blistering .542 from the field and .514 from three-point range. All would be career highs.
“It might sound crazy, but I still think it’s early for me,” Lin said. “I still think it’s early in my development phase or whatever you want to call it.”
That is undeniably true, but it is among the many salient points that got lost amid Lin’s dizzying rise in New York, and in the aftermath of the Knicks’ controversial decision to let him leave. His fame outpaced his development, skewing perspectives and pushing fans and pundits into comically extreme positions: those convinced of Lin’s stardom and those convinced he was vastly overrated.
As Lin observed a year ago, “It’s kind of like zero or a hundred. But I know realistically it’s going to be somewhere in between.”
All these months later, Lin is still searching for that comfortable middle.
Pressed into the starting lineup on Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers while Harden rested a sore foot, Lin responded with a throwback performance, producing 34 points and 12 assists. He also set an arena record, and a career-high, with an eye-popping nine three-pointers, proving once more that he still has a few surprises left.
That performance came just two nights after Lin dropped 31 points on the Toronto Raptors.
Linsanity still lives, in flashes.
It has not always been a welcome shadow. During a conference in Taiwan in August, Lin admitted that last season he became “obsessed with becoming a great basketball player” and with “trying to be Linsanity.”
“The coaches were losing faith in me; basketball fans were making fun of me,” Lin said at the conference, via ESPN. “I was supposed to be joyful and free, but what I experienced was the opposite. I had no joy, and I felt no freedom.”
The move to the bench last week was a practical matter. Harden and Lin both function best with the ball in their hands. Their backcourt partnership was unwieldy. Beverley is a better defender than both of them, and a better fit alongside Harden.
The backup role suits Lin, giving him more license to handle the ball and attack defenses. As of Wednesday, Lin ranked fourth in the league in points scored on drives, behind Monta Ellis, Evan Turner and Harden, according to the NBA’s player-tracking system.
“I think he’s playing better right now than he has at any point last year for us,” coach Kevin McHale said. “I’ve really been happy with Jeremy.”
For now, Lin is simply the NBA’s most famous backup guard, playing for a team with two towering stars and championship aspirations. What we know now, incontrovertibly, is that Lin is a very good NBA player, with a high work ethic, a healthy sense of perspective and the ability to still occasionally surprise.
“That whole crazy Linsanity thing was like a once-in-a-lifetime (event),” McHale said.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. The thrill of Linsanity was that no one saw it coming. We should perhaps stop trying to predict what’s coming next and simply enjoy the ride.