- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Until Tuesday, Jeremy Lin and the Knicks hadn't seen the Toronto Raptors since the Valentine's Day game in which Lin dribbled down the clock for the game's last shot and surprised veteran teammate Tyson Chandler by waving off the screen Chandler was going to set to help him shake free.
"O-kayyy," Chandler later admitted thinking to himself, laughing at Lin's audacity even before Lin stared down Toronto guard Jose Calderon and then launched -- and made -- a 3-pointer with less than a second left to win the game.
Looking back now, the shot marked the absolute peak of Linsanity. It was just his fifth career start, and it was the highlight of a 27-point night that came on the road just four days after Lin dropped 38 on the Lakers in another win at Madison Square Garden.
Now, Linsanity hasn't merely ebbed. A lot has happened to test Lin's sanity since then, too. Head coach Mike D'Antoni, who saved Lin's career as much as Lin temporarily saved his job, is gone. Mike Woodson is in. But all the foreboding predictions about the impending death of Lin's stay in the limelight or even his career have been greatly exaggerated.
Tuesday's rematch against the Raptors -- a 106-87 romp that Knicks controlled from wire to wire to drop Toronto to 15-31 -- was as good a benchmark as any to re-assess where Lin is hovering right now, five weeks into his ascension as the Knicks' starting point guard.
Lin is no D-League player anymore, so just stop repeating that misguided junk. But he's also not a player who should be Option 1A for this team, just a very nice piece. That's something that Woodson has been correct to emphasize since he took over for D'Antoni four games and four wins ago, but it's something that's been misconstrued as proof that Woodson is determined to put a lid on Lin.
The last charge is just one of the presumptions -- about Lin, and about Woodson -- that gets a little rise out of Woodson. And honestly, after the laid-back vibe that D'Antoni often threw off even when asked serious questions, hearing Woodson raise that gravelly voice of his and protest any more pat portrayals of what Lin is or isn't, or what Lin is "allowed" to do, was kind of nice to see. Details are important to Woodson. He cares about the perceptions and the reality.
"I'm not clamping him at all," Woodson protested before the game. "He's out there wheeling and dealing."
(Woodson actually sounded like he was channeling Clyde Frazier right then -- which was sort of splendiferous, really. But don't interrupt. Woodson was on a roll...)
"During that [hot] stretch he had, we had key people out and he had a opportunity to shine," Woodson went on about Lin, still explaining what he wants. "Now we have a more solid lineup... [and] you've gotta kind of have two games -- you've gotta have a coach's game, and you've gotta have your [personal] game as well. And he's learning."
But Woodson also ticked off a lot of things he likes about Lin's game, starting with Lin's improved defense, and the way Lin has absorbed the extra attention other teams are now trying to throw at him and then determinedly fought through all of it: The increased defensive traps; the way teams try to run Lin through screen after bone-crunching screen; the way other guards actively go after Lin now, eager to show him a thing or two, because of the over-the-top hype he received.
"And that's fine," Woodson said with an ever-so-slight smile.
Woodson was once an NBA guard himself. He knows how this gilding or grind-down of reputations go. It's always been part of the game.
Much as Woodson insists nothing dramatic needs changing for Lin, the fact is Lin has taken less shots in the four games since Woodson took over. Lin had 18 and 11 field goal attempts in D'Antoni's final two games. He's hoisted no more than 10 shots in any game since. Lin has also cut down on the sloppy turnovers now that Woodson has the Knicks playing at a bit more deliberate pace, even though they run a lot of the same offensive sets D'Antoni used.
The Knicks are still fast breaking, but it's more opportunistic break now -- not running and gunning all the time.
So all that talk that Lin was living on borrowed time now that Woodson is in charge is likely to continue to be silly. Lin is still the best point guard the Knicks have. Baron Davis (now out with a tweaked hamstring) still hasn't proven he's not going to breakdown every other week. On Tuesday, Lin dropped two more rainbow 3-pointers on the Raptors and made another handful of beautiful passes -- none better than a perfect third-quarter alley oop he hit Landry Fields with on a dead run after grabbing a long rebound and tearing upcourt with the ball.
The Raptors surely didn't forget what Lin had done to them last time they met. They kept lining him up and nailing him with hard-set screens. They knocked him down several times, and accidentally bloodied his nose at one point in the first quarter when guard DeMar DeRozan's forearm hit Lin in the face as Lin was dribbling the ball near the top of the key.
But Lin, as usual, didn't take a backward step. He still went on to have a nicely calibrated, highly professional night: 18 points, 10 assists and only three turnovers.
It wasn't the kind of splashy game that sent Linsanity spiking to its peak five weeks ago against this same team. Even with their four straight wins, the Knicks are still only 22-24 heading into Wednesday's game at division-leading Philadelphia and barely clinging to the East's last playoff spot. But over the long haul, the sort of sanity Woodson is preaching could be better -- for Lin and all the Knicks. Their last four wins have all been by double-digits, and as Lin said, "We're playing with more energy, more focus, we're buying in. We're moving the ball well."
Yes, the head coach has changed. Yes, Lin's role has changed. A little. But if this keeps up, they'll both be around a while. Because the Knicks continue to win.
Jeremy Lin is adjusting to his tweaked role, and the Knicks are winning.