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The New York Knicks head into a do-or-die Game 5 against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night as double-digit underdogs expected to go home on the business end of a gentleman's sweep. There are plenty of reasons for that — the fact that Miami's been a significantly better team over the course of the season, winning six of seven matchups against the Knicks, seems like a pretty good catch-all — but the one most of us have been focusing on since New York's elimination-delaying Game 4 win on Sunday is the sad state of affairs in the Knicks' backcourt.
• Landry Fields, starter. Coming off a real tough year-and-a-half except for that cute glasses thing, posting a robust 7.8 Player Efficiency Rating through the first four games of this series, going to have to guard Dwyane Wade and LeBron James again, shock/horror.
• Mike Bibby, starter. Three days shy of 34 years old, legally dead on defense for three years, shooting 31.3 percent for the series, yet about to play somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes in an elimination playoff game if Knicks interim coach Mike Woodson gets his way, shock/horror.
• J.R. Smith, first guard off the bench. The utterly context-less man, shooting 5 of 24 from 3-point land in this series and yet somehow the Knicks' No. 2 option offensively for like 35 minutes a game, shock/horror.
• And Toney Douglas, second guard off the bench. The Knicks' former starting point guard, whose all-but total failings have rendered him nearly impossible to play for the last three months, to the point where a version of Mike Bibby about whom "Weekend at Bernie's" jokes have now become standard vernacular is a clear first-team choice ahead of him. Shock/horror.
Given that, you can understand why Knicks fans the world over were hanging and hoping and praying on every report that once and former bolt-from-the-blue Jeremy Lin was ahead of schedule in his comeback from surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The Knicks' Sunday win seemed like it might have opened the door for Lin's return if his recovery proceeded apace — even though that prospect was very, very scary from the get-go — but it didn't. Woodson told the media Tuesday that Lin will not play in this series, even if the Knicks win Wednesday night.
On Wednesday, Lin spoke with members of the media in Miami, including Howard Beck at the New York Times, to give his perspective on why that ahead-of-schedule return stalled out while he was working out on Monday:
"I tried to take off, tried to plant, just go full speed at 100 percent," Lin said Wednesday, as the Knicks prepared for Game 5. "It didn't feel right. It felt pain when I tried to take off."
Lin said team doctors told him, "I need to be able to just trust the knee. And right now there's some tightness and soreness. And I need to get that out obviously before I can be 100 percent."
Yes, he does. And screw anyone who suggests otherwise.
And, to be sure, people are suggesting otherwise. The whispers are out there in New York, where fans desperate for something to cling to and somebody to love are wondering why 85 percent of the best point guard on the roster isn't good enough to go ahead with. The whispers are given voice — as they always seem to be, for better or for worse — by the tabloid beat man. In this case, it's Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, who laid out the talking points Wednesday afternoon on Twitter:
That two-piece-and-a-biscuit just has everything, doesn't it? The clipped-barb snark of an implication of insufficient toughness, the irrelevant-to-this-discussion reference to a hardscrabble warrior of old and a southpaw switch that has you questioning your stances on both Lin AND 'Melo. Bing, bang, boom. Flawless.
Isola, of course, is absolutely right. If Anthony sat out at a reported 85 percent, he'd be vilified by not only fans, but New York writers, national media and the world at large. And, as I've written before, that would be stupid as hell, too.
Risking injury by coming back before you're comfortable — and, perhaps more importantly, before you have confidence that you're not endangering yourself, which seem like the same thing, but are actually different in an important way — isn't a good thing for any player. But it would be catastrophic for a player like Lin, whose game at its highest points this season was characterized by balls-out, pell-mell driving, forever tearing ass around screens and into the trees to either draw-and-dump, draw a foul or draw on some magic and get off a shot that didn't seem possible.
Like 99 percent of Jeremy Lin's offense was playing Chicken — driving straight at a defender, daring him to either give way or hammer this unusual thing heading straight for him, and then seeing what would happen. You can't play that way without confidence and, yes, faith that you're going to pull through it. If that's not there, then he's not there, and he can't be himself. And if he can't be himself — setting aside the fact that Lin-as-self had a freakin' miserable night the one time he played this Miami defense — then what the hell are we even talking about?
Yeah, it sucks for Knicks fans that would love to see the by-far-most-gifted point man on their roster get a shot at extending the series another game. But it sucks for him, too. More from Beck:
"Every time I watch a game, right after a game ends, the only thing I can think about is playing in the next one," Lin said. "It's tough. But the vets, they always tell me, make sure I make the right decision, make sure that the knee is 100 percent before I try to do something, especially the speed and physicality of the series."
Asked if his main concern was whether he could be effective or whether he risked re-injuring the knee, Lin said, "It's probably both." He added, "I'm mostly worried about just not having to suffer a real setback, which would be another injury."
The vets are right and the fans are wrong, as much as it sucks to deal with, as much as Knicks fans dread the backcourt they're running out Wednesday night, and as much as fans of a good story would love to see the breathless narrative of Lin's season end on a triumphant note. A Jeremy Lin afraid of what's going to happen next isn't the Jeremy Lin we watched this season. At this stage, Jeremy Lin has every right to be afraid of what's going to happen next, and if it can prevent horrible things from happening, then fear is good.