HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The New York Knicks visit Houston tonight and will get their first look at their old No. 17 turned No. 7 in Rockets red.
They’ll find a shrunken image from the blue-and-orange rocket that lit up drooling Garden crowds last season and turned the place into a nightly dream factory. The absolutely surreal, 50-day Jeremy Lin phenomenon launched “Linsanity” and transformed its creator, a Harvard grad and twice-cut NBA player, into a global icon.
A $25 million offseason offer sheet from the Rockets and a surprising refusal to match by the Knicks later, the dream went poof.
Lin’s on-the-floor replacement — or more appropriately, replacements — has made it easy for Knicks fans to compartmentalize Lin’s remarkable run that started on Feb. 4, 2012 with 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds, and ended on March 24 with 13 points, three rebounds and a left knee injury.
Lin would have surgery, be done for the season and, ultimately, done with the Knicks.
Once incredulous, Knicks fans now hardly notice. The club retooled with the remarkably ageless Jason Kidd, who at age 39, has slid seamlessly to shooting guard, allowing the other backcourt acquisition, the rejuvenated and redemptive Raymond Felton, to handle the point.
New York is off to an 8-2 start, playing with purpose and a rare collectiveness that includes ‘Melo, with much credit being heaped upon the eternally unselfish Kidd.
“It’s been great,” Felton said of playing alongside Kidd, the NBA’s second-leading all-time assist man who now willfully is second on his own team. “He has respect for my game and what I can do out there enough to accept that role at the same time he’s been great for me, just being in my ear, being a big brother. He’s a great teammate.”
Lin’s role changed before the season even started after the Rockets’ trade for James Harden. A phenomenal ball-handler and finisher, Harden’s new $80 million contract dwarfs Lin’s big payday, and his outrageous skills have pushed Lin out of his comfort zone and even recently to the bench during key fourth-quarter stretches.
For a brief time, a Kidd-Lin mentorship in the Big Apple seemed inevitable and exciting. But the Knicks didn’t go to the great lengths, as reportedly they would, to bring Lin back, not at a third-year balloon payment of $15 million. Instead they returned Felton, to his great delight, to New York after a near-ruinous run through Denver then Portland.
Felton has owned up to his mistake of showing up out of shape after the lockout. His game suffered and he became a pudgy target of machine-gun criticism both in Portland and nationally. Following a hard-working summer, his body is slimmer and his numbers better, averaging 15.4 points and 6.9 assists for a Knicks team he never wanted to leave in the first place.
“Yeah, it’s big, it is for sure,” Felton said of the chip he carries on his shoulder. “No making excuses, I came in out of shape and a lot of negativity came from that, so I really have to put most of that on myself. But there was a lot of other stuff that was said about me, off the court stuff that was not true. I’m not that type of person. I think a lot of my teammates, ex-teammates will vouch for that, say that’s not the Raymond that they know. All I can do is come out and bounce back this year.”
Felton is averaging 33 minutes to Kidd’s 26, yet usage rates reveal Felton has the ball in his hands more than twice as much as Kidd, who is averaging 8.3 points and a career-low 3.3 assists, mostly as a 3-point shooter. He filled that role more than some might remember in Dallas, particularly on the 2011 title team when playing with J.J. Barea, or late in games when Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry engaged in a two-man game with Kidd isolated on the wing or in the corner awaiting a kick-out for an open 3.
“Ray’s our engine,” Kidd said. “He gets things going and again, he finds the open guys and puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He’s been doing that since training camp so he’s playing at a high level.”
At the start of free agency, none of the three point guards knew they’d land where they did, let alone the roles they’d play. It will be fascinating to watch how each’s season continues to unfold.