It's all on Jeremy Lin next year

MIAMI -- The last night of the New York Knicks' season, a dreadful night all around, actually started at the team's morning practice, where Jeremy Lin said something for the record he probably should have kept to himself.

Lin estimated his game and surgically repaired left knee were at 85 percent capacity. Nobody in a city of eight million grinders wants to hear that someone at 85 percent isn't willing or able to give 100 percent to a sudden-death cause.

No, it wouldn't have changed the Game 5 result Wednesday night, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade scored a 106-94 victory that sent the Knicks to the putting green for good. Lin got swallowed whole by the Miami defense when he was healthy. He would've been just another New Yorker overwhelmed by the Heat's intensity, athleticism and skill.

But the most important Knick of 2013 fumbled his last possession of 2012, no doubt about it. Hours after providing a physical assessment that inspired a singular question -- And you mean you're not going to try to play at 85 percent? -- Lin ran through a series of shooting drills in pregame warmups, then took a seat on the bench, his gray workout shirt soaked with sweat.

Soon enough Lin turned to the teammate seated next to him, Josh Harrellson, and began play-fighting with him, the two exchanging pulled punches before the injured point guard disappeared down an AmericanAirlines Arena tunnel. The scene was too casual for a player too hurt to play in an elimination game, and for a team too depleted at quarterback to move the first-round chains.

Before Lin said what he said, the notion of throwing him out there on a sore, rusty knee seemed like pure Linsanity, minus the 'L.' Miami had the most tenacious defense in the tournament, knees were blowing up all over the place, and, hey, the seventh-seeders weren't going to win the series anyway, right?

Lin changed the tone of the should-he-or-shouldn't-he debate by effectively declaring himself more able-bodied than, say, Amare Stoudemire, who made a bloody fool of himself after Game 2 but returned to the series with a left hand that looked more like a chew toy.

Stoudemire was great in Game 4, and not-so-great in Game 5. Carmelo Anthony dropped 41 in the Garden before finishing with a less impactful 35 down here, and the Knicks went careening into another early offseason to deal with this unforgiving truth:

Their Big Three isn't nearly as good as Miami's Big Three.

That isn't likely to change next season, or the season after that, and the Knicks aren't in any salary-cap position to add another star in his prime, not after making the deal for Tyson Chandler. Steve Nash is free, but he's also nearing the same stage of his career Brett Favre was in when he landed with the Jets.

Lin is younger, bigger and more athletic than Nash. Oh yeah, and more marketable, too. The Knicks would rehire Larry Brown before they let Lin walk as a restricted free agent.

So Lin will be the player who determines if the Knicks are first-round fodder again next season, or if they can grow into a legitimate threat to the Heat. Sure, the Knicks need Anthony to return in better shape, to never again show up as Flab Melo. The Knicks need Stoudemire to regain some of his youthful bounce, assuming they don't try to trade him. And the Knicks need Iman Shumpert to recover from his knee injury sooner rather than later.

But more than anything, the Knicks need Jeremy Lin to develop into a real player, a reasonable facsimile of the Linsanity model. The Heat remain weak at the point. If Lin can make himself one of the league's better playmakers, the Knicks can attack one of Miami's vulnerabilities.

"He impacts the game," Chandler said.

"He's just a huge piece offensively," Steve Novak said. "The way we were able to play when he was in there, the way he moves the ball and his court vision, I think guys love playing with him. … When he was at his best and we went on that run, it was some of the most fun basketball I think people had watched in a long time."

It appeared to be fun for everyone except Anthony, who sprang to life after Lin's benefactor, Mike D'Antoni, ran out of the gym and never came back. Mike Woodson put the ball back in Anthony's hands, ran a relentless series of isolations, and won himself a likely contract extension because of it.

But Wednesday night the most professional of Knicks, Chandler, didn't sound like a man convinced that the ball-stopping principles of Melomania represented any way to win it all.

"We have to elevate our teammates," the center said. "I think we have to do a better job of getting everybody involved, getting everybody playing at a high level, and getting everybody focused on what we're trying to accomplish.

"And we have to do that collectively. It has to be a team effort. It can't be as individuals, because when you play as individuals you don't get very far."

The Heat had four players take between 11 and 19 shots in Game 5, and the Knicks had Anthony launch 31, J.R. Smith 15, and nobody else more than seven. From the end of the bench, watching it all in a suit and glasses, the kid from Harvard had to be thinking about the difference he could have made.

But more than five weeks after surgery, Lin could only prepare and practice for a second round that wasn't to be. "I think to get from 85 percent to 100 percent takes more time than I would have thought," he said.

Now the Knicks and Lin have all the time they need to recover. Anthony said his team should stand among the top three or four in the East and promised, "Next year we'll be better."

But there's only one clear way for these Knicks to get better. Melo, Stoudemire and Chandler are what they are, and they remain in dire need of a quarterback, a good one.

It's all on Jeremy Lin from here on out. The Knicks should hope he handles next season better than the end of this one.