It's been a long fall from the sofa all the way down to Earth, wouldn't you say?
It certainly looks that way for Jeremy Lin, who a year ago suffered from overexposure during 15 minutes of greatness, and now in a curious twist, he's in danger of being exposed for what he is. This playoff series with Oklahoma City started wrong for Lin and could get worse if all suspicions are true about him being just a nice pick-and-roll point guard for the Rockets and nothing more, certainly nothing on the gargantuan scale that briefly turned him into an overnight global basketball sensation.
That neat fairytale about him crashing on his brother's couch, then coming up big for the Knicks, is far in the past by now, correct? The media circus is long gone, and so is Linsanity, and one week into the playoffs we find the Knicks and Lin running in opposite directions. With a commanding lead against the Celtics, the Knicks are built to last at least a few rounds while he might not last another week against OKC's Russell Westbrook. In terms of visibility and winning, the Knicks don't miss him more than he misses them.
On Wednesday night Lin will try to atone for a gruesome Game 1 that saw him torched and even benched. In some ways, it really isn't fair to him. Westbrook is an All-Star who slices up many point guards, not just Lin. And this is Lin's first taste of the playoffs because last spring, in a controversial decision that greased his way out of New York, he declared himself unfit for playoff duty, famously saying he was only "85 percent" after undergoing meniscus surgery almost two months earlier. By comparison, Metta World Peace this season returned from the same surgery in a few weeks.
"I had a bad game, it happens," Lin said. "I'm not too worried about it. It will get better."
It wasn't a bad performance against the Thunder, more like an invisible one. He made only one basket, a season-low. Serge Ibaka, the shot-blocker from the Thunder, had three times as many three-point shots fall as Lin had field goals. Westbrook was two rebounds short of a triple double. Lin had as many turnovers as assists. And Rockets coach Kevin McHale, frustrated at getting minimal production at the point, pulled Lin for a spell during the second half of a blowout loss.
"One good thing about Jeremy is that he's a tough kid," said McHale. "He has always bounced back."
Tough night, then. Just the same, Lin is coming off a so-so season, one that didn't exactly make the Knicks twist and turn at night, wondering if they did the wrong thing by letting him escape last summer in free agency. In his first full season as a starter and with the responsibility of leading a team, Lin helped the Rockets to the playoffs. That is true. He did not make the Knicks miss him. That also is true. He was helped immensely in Houston by the arrival of James Harden, not only from a pressure standpoint, but Harden became an All-Star and the primary face of the Rockets. With Lin's blessing.
"He's been incredible and just what this team needed," Lin said.
Lin leveraged his three-month Disney story with the Knicks into a three-year, $25 million contract in Houston. Almost immediately, a portion of the NBA freaked out. Carmelo Anthony called the contract "ridiculous." The Knicks, unwilling to pay the poison-pill final year that called for $14.9 million, let him walk. But the deal was hardly as crippling as it seemed, financially anyway. The Rockets had money to spend and cap room to spare, and still do, actually. They needed a point guard, and bringing back the guy they cut a year earlier, someone who could sell tickets, made sense on several levels. It was win-win for both the player and the team, even if the rest of the league wondered if the Rockets were getting someone whose value was tremendously inflated by those dreamy months in New York.
Lin averaged 13 points and six assists this season. He was nothing special. His quickness and ability to reach the rim and the pick-and-roll game with Harden helped some nights. Other nights, he was overmatched in the West, home to a deep group of quality point guards that never stopped coming. One of his better games of the year did occur in New York when he went for 22 and nine, and for long stretches looked like the player who stunned the NBA and won over New Yorkers. He also had 38 and seven against Tony Parker in another game, but was mainly an inconsistent second option all year. The ball is more in Harden's hands than Lin's, and in tight fourth quarters, Harden is Houston's point guard, dictating the big plays, much like LeBron James is Miami's point guard.
The good news is Lin's only 24. That appeals to the Rockets -- Lin has room to grow as a playmaker and shooter. He's far from the worst starting point guard in the NBA, and also far from the best.
And far from the memory of New York.
The Knicks have moved on and upward without Lin. At first, their decision to let Lin walk, and then sign Raymond Felton, seemed a stretch. Felton was fat and lazy in Portland the year before. But New York represented a last-chance for Felton, and besides being desperate, he came cheap. As a bonus, he meshed with Anthony. All told, the Knicks got roughly the same performance from Felton (13.9 points, 5.5 assists) that Lin gave the Rockets, at fewer dollars.
With Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni chipping in with quality minutes, point guard suddenly became the least of the Knicks' worries. New York won 54 games, a division title and is up 2-0 in the first round against the Celtics, making Boston look old.
"Everything's coming together for us right now," said Anthony. "Our confidence is high."
In Houston, here in the Year After Linsanity, Jeremy Lin finds the expectations lower, along with the buzz. The Rockets are a team under construction that hung on to capture the final playoff spot in the West, looking to make a free agent splash this summer, hoping to add a few important pieces to the mix. And right now, Lin is just a decent player on a below-the-radar team, trying to keep Russell Westbrook from going nuts in Game 2 and the rest of the series. His 15 minutes aren't coming back anytime soon. If ever.
He's richer and more secure and doesn't need to crash in anyone's living room anymore. Yet, in some ways, that sofa probably felt a lot more comfortable.