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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Knicks Edge Celtics as the N.B.A. Returns

But it ended with a final burst of merriment and in the N.B.A.’s first game since June.

Carmelo Anthony, playing in his first opening day as a Knick, scored 37 points, including the go-ahead free throws with 16.3 seconds left. The debut of the Knicks’ towering new frontcourt was a success, with Amar’e Stoudemire adding 21 points and Tyson Chandler providing just enough paint presence to make it all stand up.

Along the way, the Knicks built and squandered a 17-point lead, lost Iman Shumpert to a knee injury and, most significant, got the attention of a Celtics team that played without Paul Pierce.

“We showed something today,” Anthony said, adding later, “This is a new beginning for us.”

Anthony carried the Knicks for long stretches and was dominant when it mattered most, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter. He was efficient, too, going 10 for 17 from the field and 13 for 15 from the line, while grabbing 8 rebounds. His only blemish was in the turnover column, with five.

The Knicks were fortunate to get the victory after giving up 35 points in the third quarter, when the Celtics turned a 12-point deficit into an 8-point lead. The Knicks tightened the defense in the fourth quarter, holding Boston to 17 points, then rode Anthony’s hot hand to the finish.

“We fought,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s not always going to be pretty, especially early. And we got to get as many wins as we can by the spirit of the team.”

The task just became tougher. Shumpert, the Knicks’ prized rookie guard, is expected to miss two to four weeks after spraining his right knee. Jared Jeffries, the Knicks’ first big man off the bench, will be out for a week or two after injuring his right calf. The Knicks open a three-game trip Wednesday at Golden State.

The losses of Jeffries and Shumpert further degrade the Knicks’ bench, which as D’Antoni acknowledged was “wobbly” to begin with. Mike Bibby, who missed the opener because of a back injury, will take Shumpert’s minutes. Josh Harrellson, a second-round draft pick, and Steve Novak, who was claimed off waivers last week, will fill in for Jeffries.

“That’s what the guys are there for,” D’Antoni said.

The Christmas afternoon ended with a snarl; the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett struck the Knicks’ Bill Walker with an open hand to the throat. Garnett had missed a potential game-tying jumper on the game’s final possession with Walker defending. After the buzzer, Walker started to approach Garnett, who responded with venom. Teammates quickly separated them to prevent a fight.

Walker said he did nothing to provoke Garnett and tried to play down the incident.

“I just know I seen his hands coming in my face — that’s disrespectful,” said Walker, who was once teammates with Garnett in Boston. Walker added: “It’s nothing big. It died at the end of the game. It’s over with. I don’t have any animosity toward Kevin.”

Garnett declined to comment on the incident, which could earn him a suspension.

Walker will get more court time without Shumpert, who was emerging as the Knicks’ best backcourt defender. They can hardly afford the loss after Rajon Rondo (31 points) and Ray Allen (20 points) tore through their defense.

The Knicks trailed early in the fourth quarter but tied the game at 100-100 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Toney Douglas (19 points) and Anthony. The score was tied again at 102-102 and 104-104 before Anthony put the Knicks ahead to stay with two free throws. Boston’s Marquis Daniels missed a 3-pointer, setting up the Celtics’ final inbounds play with 3.9 seconds left.

After a 149-day lockout, a half-dozen roster moves and a rushed two-week training camp, the Knicks were eager, if not altogether polished.

“We do not know who we are yet, or what kind of team we’ll have, or what the areas are that we need to really improve on,” D’Antoni said before tip-off.

It had been eight months and a day since these teams last met, — and an equal number of days since the Garden witnessed an N.B.A. game that counted.

It had been nearly six months since the N.B.A. played a meaningful game anywhere. A full house that included Chris Rock, Alicia Keys, Tracy Morgan and John McEnroe roared at the game’s return and the introduction of a remodeled Knicks roster.

The Celtics eased past the Knicks in April, but so much had changed since then. The Knicks became stronger, adding Chandler, Shumpert and Baron Davis (once his back is healthy). The Celtics became only a little older.

“I don’t think we’re a lot better today than the team last year,” D’Antoni said of his new squad. “But in two months or three months, we should be a lot better than we were last year.”

The Celtics were missing Pierce because of a bruised right heel, making it difficult to judge them either. For the first time in years, the Knicks see an opportunity to win the Atlantic Division.

“It’s going to be a rivalry now,” D’Antoni said, “because I think we can get up to the same level they are.”

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Knicks Make Final Preparations for N.B.A.’s Opening Game

“It should be an exciting year,” Coach said. “We’re looking forward to it. I know the players are looking forward to playing. It should be great.”

D’Antoni said the Knicks would probably use the same starting lineup they did in the two-game preseason on Sunday when they face the , who swept the Knicks out of the opening round of the playoffs last season in four games. They may, however, be without the backup point guard Mike Bibby.

Bibby, a 13-year veteran who signed with the Knicks on Dec. 11, injured his back when he collided with the Nets’ Stephen Graham in the teams’ preseason game Wednesday. Bibby sat out practice Friday, but he participated on a limited basis Saturday. He will probably be a game-time decision.

Either way, the Knicks will probably maintain the starting lineup that features Tyson Chandler at center, Amar’e Stoudemire at power forward, Carmelo Anthony at small forward, Landry Fields at shooting guard and Toney Douglas at point guard.

The lockout-abbreviated training camp has added to the difficulty in preparing for the season. D’Antoni has simplified the offense and says he plans to add layers of complexity as the season progresses. On Saturday, he put the Knicks through what appeared to be a fairly thorough practice, not sparing a moment even though it was Christmas Eve.

“Everybody’s antsy,” D’Antoni said. “I think every team is the same way. You hope they respond the right way; you worry about them physically and mentally, the way a team’s put together. A little more angst on our part, but we’re confident we can play well.”

After Sunday’s opener against the Celtics, the Knicks will , returning to the Garden to host the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 2.

The Knicks have seemed to try to temper the early expectations by reiterating that a season is a marathon, not a sprint. But coaches and players acknowledge that they will have an opportunity to make an opening statement with a strong performance.

“The atmosphere is going to be just like, if not better than, a playoff game tomorrow,” Stoudemire said. “It’s Christmas Day. It’s the first game. Prime-time game. It’s going to be incredible.”

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