Just Before His Breakout, Lin Struggled Mightily

The were in Boston on Feb. 3, battling the and fighting to save their season. Lin got the call late in the first quarter, his earliest appearance as a Knick. The next six and a half minutes were a blur of miscues, missed layups and poorly timed fouls.

Lin was benched early in the second quarter of the 91-89 loss, his box-score line set for the night: 0 for 3 on field goals, 2 for 2 on free throws, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 fouls, 1 turnover, 2 points.

Amar’e Stoudemire remembered as much about the performance as most people.

“Uh, not much,” he said, chuckling.

There was no hint of what was to come, just one night later: a 25-point, 7-assist outburst against the Nets. The start of a seven-game winning streak. A record-setting string of performances. And something called Linsanity.

On Feb. 3, Jeremy Lin looked like an overmatched, easily rattled, mistake-prone reserve. On Feb. 4, Lin looked like a polished N.B.A. star. What changed in 24 hours is some sort of cosmic mystery, a delicate blend of confidence, preparation and kismet.

“Sometimes, you can’t explain it,” Knicks Coach said. “Sometimes, it happens.”

The Knicks are back in Boston on Sunday for a nationally televised matinee against the Celtics. Nothing that happened 29 days ago seems relevant. The Knicks (18-18) are better, deeper, more stable. Their offense is functioning. And Lin is a star, averaging 22.1 points and 9.2 assists in 12 games since becoming a starter.

“Lin has obviously taken over the world,” the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett told Boston reporters. “You always like to see someone succeed. He plays with a lot of passion.”

There is much at stake in this rematch. The Celtics (18-17), a powerhouse for the last four years, are enduring their toughest season since Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce became teammates — and facing growing speculation that their core could be broken up before the March 15 trading deadline. They are jockeying for position with the Knicks in the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference while hoping for a second-half surge. Both teams are chasing the Philadelphia 76ers (22-15), the surprise leaders of the Atlantic Division.

The Knicks have won 10 of their last 13 games, but they are 3-3 over the last six and still need to prove themselves against the N.B.A.’s elite defensive teams. For all of their struggles, the Celtics rank fourth in defensive efficiency, and Rajon Rondo, who will guard Lin, is among the league’s top defenders.

Lin played superbly against the Dallas Mavericks’ stiff defense on Feb. 19, but he had his worst game as a starter against the Miami Heat’s swarming attack four days later. D’Antoni said it was up to the entire lineup, not just Lin, to solve the top defenses.

“Maybe when there’s a lot of pressure, the ball has to move faster,” D’Antoni said. “But we as a team have to have our flow and things. I think Jeremy can read the situation, and he’ll be comfortable with it. I think he’s passed all the tests. Now it’s just a matter of learning and getting better, and getting older and wiser as a point guard. But there’s definitely no test. I don’t have to say anything.”

The picture was much different Feb. 3. The Knicks were trailing by 4 points when Lin replaced Iman Shumpert with 2 minutes 38 seconds left in the first quarter. The ESPN broadcast team of Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy did not mention him when he took the court.

The first time Lin touched the ball — lunging for a rebound after Landry Fields’s missed layup — he knocked it out of bounds. On his next trip up the court, Lin lost the ball at midcourt to Avery Bradley, who sped the other way for a fast-break layup. Lin missed his first shot , a 19-footer.

Moments later, Lin fouled Pierce on a 3-point try with 3.6 seconds left in the period. Lin quickly earned some redemption by making two free throws himself after drawing a foul on Sasha Pavlovic with 0.1 left on the clock.

The one glimpse of Lin’s potential came early in the second quarter. Dribbling on the perimeter, Lin found a seam, darted into the lane, drew in the defense and fed Stoudemire for a layup. Van Gundy, who had just noted the Knicks’ lack of creative perimeter players, perked up, saying, “That’s a very nice play by Lin.”

Lin missed his next two shots (a four-footer and a layup) and did not make another positive play before D’Antoni pulled him with 8:02 left in the second quarter.

“I had some jitters,” Lin said Saturday, noting it was his first turn with the Knicks’ starters and his first chance to play in the first quarter. “Just hoping it wouldn’t be my last chance,” he added.

Had Lin kept stumbling, he might have been waived the next week. But against the Nets’ softer defense, Lin found a comfort level. His failures in Boston were fresh, but so were the lessons. He kept attacking and made history.

Still, the 24-hour turnaround remains striking and difficult to explain.

“Most of it is psychological,” D’Antoni said, adding: “Some guys are anointed and can get that confidence right off the bat. Some guys got to work through it. Some guys don’t do it. He just took the challenge.”

At least one person left the arena that night believing that Lin had a chance.

“In my game notes that I literally write when I go in the office, I wrote, ‘I think Jeremy Lin is a pretty good player,’  “ Celtics Coach Doc Rivers told reporters Saturday. “Didn’t think this. But I should have had him sign it right after the game. I could have made millions.”

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