NEW YORK -- What Jeremy Lin has done over the past week far exceeds his statistics, which surpass those of some of the greatest to ever play in the NBA. Lin is delivering the two most valuable commodities in sports: hope and surprise.
All of a sudden, there's optimism in what had been a dismal New York Knicks season, a year filled with injuries and a clogged-up offense. And it's come from the most unlikely of sources: a guy whose contract wasn't even guaranteed until Tuesday. It's come from an undrafted player who was cut by two teams after NBA offices opened for business in December following the end of the lockout. It's come from a guy who was buried in the fourth spot on the Knicks' point guard depth chart -- and that wasn't even counting the injured Baron Davis, the presumed starter upon his return.
The ball, the accolades, the back pages of the New York tabloids -- they all belong to Lin right now. He just did the impossible: He exceeded all the hype the New York media (and, uh, conspiratory national networks) could muster. The buildup provided by his 76 points in his previous three games -- Lin topped himself with 38 points and seven assists in the Knicks' 92-85 victory Friday night.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers.
In Madison Square Garden.
"I don't know what to tell you," Mike D'Antoni said. "I have never seen this. It is not often that a guy is going to play four games, the best you are going to see, and nobody knows who he is. That is hard to do."
D'Antoni was giddy, caught up in the wave of the best story that's currently cresting through the NBA. The Knicks have won four consecutive games -- three without stars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire -- to improve their record to 12-15 and bring their faces to the window of the playoffs, peering inside at the injury-stricken Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot.
It was a far cry from the last time I'd seen him up close, following a 100-86 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 20, when the Garden fans were booing and chanting for D'Antoni to be fired. On that night, the dejected coach said, "We're just not sharp. It looks like our legs are deader than the other guys'. It looks like they're running circles around us a lot of times. I can't explain it."
He had neither an explanation nor a solution. He saw only one way out, even if he had little optimism that it would actually come true.
"We've got to get a little bit of swagger," he said.
Who would have thought the swag would come from a player who wasn't even on the team's roster that night, because he had been sent down to the D-League two days before. The Knicks still kept Lin's practice jersey in the locker room, however.
They brought him back Jan. 23. They threw him into action against the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 4 because they were running out of options from the unproductive group of point guards. The 25 points and seven assists with which he responded that night got him a spot in the starting lineup. The 89 points he scored in his first three starts (including Friday) got him a historical distinction. They are the most scored by an NBA player in his first three starts since the NBA-ABA merger 1976-77. That predates the start of the Magic-Bird era, encompasses Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James -- all of 'em.
"I think it's a combination of system being able to fit into the system, being able to play through some mistakes and then building confidence," was the closest Lin could come to explaining it.
The confidence is the easiest to see. The offensive approach is rather basic: Come off screens set by Tyson Chandler, see what's there, come off another screen if necessary. It led to Lin scoring or assisting on the Knicks' first 16 points of the game Friday. He had a similar hand in 13 of 14 points in a similar run during the second quarter. (The lone exception came when Lin ushered Steve Novak to the free throw line for a technical foul shot like a maitre d' showing a diner to his table. Maybe Lin should be credited for an assist on that one, too.)
Kobe started picking him up on defense a few times. And with the Lakers trailing, Kobe became fully engaged on offense and threw every attack in his arsenal at the Knicks, hitting baseline jumpers from impossible angles, even throwing the ball off the backboard to himself to set up a pass to Pau Gasol for a jump shot. Bryant scored 34 points, but on this night, the man who has more points than all but four players in NBA history was no match for the man who doesn't even have four NBA starts.
Lin acted as if he actually believed he was the best player on the court Friday night. He caught Gasol in a switch onto him and fired a long jumper over the lanky big man. Swish. He got the ball in the left corner, fired up another 3-pointer and drained it, holding his right hand aloft as he trotted down the sideline to be greeted by jubilant Knicks streaming off the bench in a timeout.
"When I'm on the court, I try to play with all my emotion and all my heart," Lin said. "I don't really try to hold too much back."
The Garden was delirious. The fan base that hasn't seen its team win a championship since 1973 converted all its frustration into love for Lin.
Think back to the Garden performances over the past 20 years that stick in your mind. Michael Jordan's double-nickel. Reggie Miller swiping playoff games in the fourth quarter. LeBron's near triple-double.
What do they have in common? The executor was wearing a visiting team's jersey. Knicks fans appreciate a good show no matter who puts it on. But finally they got a chance to savor a star turn that produced a victory for the home team.
Bryant has scored more points in a single game -- 61 -- than anyone in the history of Madison Square Garden, which opened 44 years ago Saturday. So he's as qualified as anyone to provide perspective on why a big night there is better than a big night in any other NBA arena.
"It's the last historical building," Bryant said. "So it's special here."
I talked to guys with many more nights logged in this building than me, who have sat courtside on so many big nights in this building, going back decades. They dubbed this "one of the coolest nights I've seen here" and "one for the ages."
That's because it's an ageless story. A guy made the most of his chance.
"He just showed you tonight how he can respond," teammate Landry Fields said.
Isn't that what we ask from sports?
Show us something. Surprise us. Amaze us. Inspire us.
Or, in Jeremy Lin's case, all of the above.