As magical as Jeremy Lin's rise from a three-time NBA castoff to global sensation has been, clear-eyed realists always knew Lin wasn't going to be "the" guy who carried the Knicks to an NBA title this season.
But the news Saturday that he needs knee surgery and will join Amare Stoudemire on the sidelines, perhaps for the rest of the season, was still a huge loss. The Knicks are going to be lucky to hold on to the eighth playoff spot in the East. And you can kiss that long playoff run they were dreaming about goodbye.
You hate to ever say never in sports, but just take a look at what the Knicks -- who were barely a .500 team even when healthy -- are dealing with now with just 13 games left in the season, and ninth-place Milwaukee breathing down their neck.
Lin has a partial meniscus tear in his left knee, and he said before Saturday's game against Cleveland that he will have arthroscopic surgery in the next few days and miss at least six weeks, which would keep him out until at least the second round of the playoffs. He's also a free agent after this season, and didn't want to even countenance the idea that he may have played his last game as a Knick when asked if he'd like to return next year.
"Oh yeah ... It's been an unbelievable journey," Lin said. "When I come back I'll be a stronger player than ever."
If Lin were the Knicks' only loss, they could survive. But Stoudemire has a bulging disk in his back and he's not expected to return for at least two weeks, but that's no sure thing either. Throw in how Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler are both playing with sore groins that could sideline them at any moment; the barking knee that has forced Jared Jeffries to miss 19 games, including the past five; and the fact that Lin's first replacement, backup point guard Baron Davis, is fighting hamstring and back tightness, and it's no wonder Knicks coach Mike Woodson looked and sounded like a man staring at 100 miles of desolate highway as he spoke about Lin's injury before the Knicks gutted out a 91-75 win over the Cavaliers.
Woodson's face was somber. His voice was flat.
"We have to rehab and regroup," Woodson said before the game. "It's a big blow for us. We gotta go on, but he's a big piece of our puzzle and what we're doing of late."
The Knicks went into the Cleveland game 8-2 since Woodson took over as head coach for Mike D'Antoni. But winning at that clip with a point guard-by-committee approach that Woodson will now be forced to use will be iffy. Veterans Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas have barely played at all this season, and they haven't been very effective when they have. Rookie Iman Shumpert isn't a natural point guard, though he'll get more minutes now there too. And Davis, once a prolific scorer, is too fragile to count on for workhorse minutes.
"Jeremy is a lot more livelier than Baron," Woodson said. "[Baron] is a little banged up right now. He's not the Baron of old. I can't afford to burn Baron 30 minutes a night. He can't take that."
Lin said he first hurt the knee in a game against Detroit on March 24, though he still isn't sure how, and he then had an MRI that the always-secretive Knicks were reluctant to announce. Lin said he and the Knicks' trainers were initially encouraged when the swelling in his knee soon began to go down, but there was a caveat: "the knee itself didn't really feel any better," Lin said.
So a decision was made -- again unannounced -- that Lin would rest for five to seven days, and then test the knee again, which Lin did Saturday morning -- only to find some significant pain was still there. The final decision to have surgery was made about a half hour before he and Woodson met the press.
"I really couldn't do much -- I couldn't cut or jump," Lin said.
So say goodbye to Linsanity, at least for now. Given how streaky the Knicks have been this season, they are going to have to fight mightily just to make sure their playoff hopes survive even their next five games, a brutal stretch that has them playing at Indiana, at Orlando, home against Chicago, then back on the road to face the Bulls and Milwaukee, who began the night trailing them by 1½ games for the East's final playoff spot.
Lin wasn't totally ready Saturday night to write off this season, but he also didn't pretend that for him, anyway, it might indeed be over.
"It sucks," he said.
He was willing to reflect a little, but only when coaxed.
In the space of 29 games, Lin went from being a Knicks waiver-wire pickup who was cut by three previous NBA teams to an overnight sensation who parlayed what he knew was probably his make-or-break chance with the Knicks into a starting job and six straight wins, not just his initial goal of keeping a roster spot.
At the start, Lin was still sleeping on his brother's dorm room couch or crashing at teammate Landry Fields' place in New York. Within two weeks he was a global sensation. Now this: Four days shy of Linsanity's two-month anniversary, Lin's life took another abrupt and unwelcome twist.
"Talk about ups and downs -- this season has had a lot of ups and a lot of downs, and I'm thankful to be here. ... It's obviously been a very emotional year," Lin said. "If this [injury] had happened very early in the year, obviously then, I don't know where my career would be. Because I would definitely be out of a job and probably applying for a summer league spot somewhere.
"But having said that, this happening now hurts just as much. Because all the players, we really put our heart and soul into the team, and it really hurts not to be there at the end ... I'd love to keep this team together as long as we can. Everybody, from top to bottom. We're growing as a team. We're finding an identity. We're getting better."
Or at least they were. The Knicks are now a few mainstays shy of a full lineup, and getting more short-handed all the time. The lockout-compressed NBA schedule isn't just taking a toll on them -- it's getting tougher just as the Knicks are getting weaker.
Nobody said goodbye Linsanity, goodbye playoff run. But nobody had to.
The concern was written all over Lin's and Woodson's faces