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D'Antoni has closure with Linsanity, awaits new beginning with Nash

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Jeremy Lin has moved on, and so has Mike D'Antoni, who has plans for a familiar point guard. (Getty Images)  
Jeremy Lin has moved on, and so has Mike D'Antoni, who has plans for a familiar point guard. (Getty Images)  

LOS ANGELES -- The kid with the backpack stood in the coach's office outside the Lakers' locker room Sunday night, taking in a few pearls of wisdom from the coach who helped him create what we all called Linsanity. Here, they would meet again -- the coach and player who captivated New York and the world with two weeks of basketball like nothing anyone had ever seen.

There had been players who had put up numbers like Jeremy Lin, guys with names like Oscar Robertson -- Hall of Famers. But no one had ridden a wave of modern-day, social-media, viral exquisiteness like Lin once he was given the keys to the most beautifully spaced, simply designed offense in basketball -- the one drawn up and perfected by Mike D'Antoni -- in the pressure-cooker of the nation's largest media market, as an ambassador for Asian-Americans who saw something of themselves in him.

Linsanity was born Feb. 6, 2012, when Lin came off the bench against the Nets and temporarily saved D'Antoni's job as coach of the Knicks with 25 points and seven assists. It essentially was laid to rest on Feb. 23, when Lin was 1 for 11 with eight turnovers in Miami against the eventual champion Heat. There were a few more statistical outbursts from Lin, but after winning eight of Lin's first 10 starts, D'Antoni's Knicks lost seven of eight and he abruptly resigned.

The tectonic shifts of that decision went far beyond anything Lin or D'Antoni could've imagined at the time. Mike Woodson took over for the Knicks, went 18-6 the rest of the way and was given the permanent job. Lin's incredible run of success under D'Antoni earned him an enormous contract, the way so many players have gotten paid after thriving under the best offensive coach in the game. But the contract did not come from the Knicks, who stunningly declined to match Houston's three-year, $25 million offer sheet in restricted free agency -- the final death knell for Linsanity.

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Somehow, they wound up in a room together Sunday night at Staples Center, comparing notes and words of encouragement after the Lakers -- without D'Antoni, who's recovering from knee replacement surgery -- beat Lin's Rockets 119-108.

"Just keep your head up," D'Antoni said he told Lin after the game. "He's good; better than most people think. You're not going to be Linsanity all the time, goddang, unless you're Oscar Robertson. So he just needs to keep his head up and keep working. He'll be fine."

It's not clear how many degrees of separation are involved here, but the D'Antoni-Lin connection has ramifications from coast to coast. The Lakers are 4-1 since firing Mike Brown after a 1-4 start and have scored 233 points in two games since D'Antoni arrived and ran two practices. The Knicks under Woodson have the best record in the East and second-best record in the league at 7-1.

The one who so far has made out the worst in the deal is Lin, whose Rockets fell to 4-6 on Sunday night as they struggle to find chemistry with their new core of Lin, James Harden and Omer Asik -- not to mention a young roster currently guided by interim coach Kelvin Sampson while Kevin McHale is on leave to be with his ill daughter. Internally, the team is dealing with the impossible situation surrounding rookie Royce White and his battle with anxiety disorder.

"You can talk about how young our team is and how no one played with each other last year; we were all on different teams," said Lin, who was 2 for 9 on Sunday night, which lowered his field-goal percentage this season to .343 -- including 8-for-31 from 3-point range. "And then the trade, and then Coach McHale. So there's a lot of change. But we're going to keep working hard. We're not going to let anything really stop us."

Lin has unburdened himself with public comments recently about how erupting so suddenly in New York was just too much, too soon -- how it stifled him, and changed him.

"I was just in a rhythm, in a zone for that stretch, and now I'm figuring out a new set of challenges and a new team," Lin said. "And I'm working to get to the point where I can help them and be my full self when I am on the court. ... I don't think it gets more pressure-packed than it was last year in New York."

D'Antoni has spoken glowingly of those two magical weeks with Lin running his offense to perfection, calling it "one of the best moments I've ever had coaching." But he's also used it as a way to explain how things ended so badly for him in New York, and that's fair, too. It was too much for everyone.

"It was just a lot at once, and it just kind of overwhelmed me," Lin told reporters at the Rockets' shootaround Sunday.

It goes without saying that if D'Antoni had stayed with the Knicks, Lin probably would have, too. In Lin, D'Antoni had finally found a point guard to run his pick-and-roll, triple-threat system the way Steve Nash had done in Phoenix. If the Knicks had kept winning and D'Antoni had stayed, it's hard to imagine him moving forward without the most critical piece who makes his offense go. But after all the ups and downs -- tearing down the roster to make a run at LeBron James in free agency, getting Amar'e Stoudemire instead, trading nearly half a playoff roster for Carmelo Anthony, and on and on -- the D'Antoni era in New York simply ran its course.

"We had a plan the first two years, all we were going to do was destroy everything," D'Antoni said. "Well, not destroy, but we went into the free-agent market and we built guys' stats up so we could trade them and open up space and set yourself up for the future. We tried that for two years. I thought it was successful, because we made a good run at the free agents, but it didn't work out.

"We had a nice young team, we made the playoffs ... and then right in the middle of that run, we trade everybody for Melo," D'Antoni said. "Good trade, I think, for the organization. I think that's what they should've done. But now the expectations are through the roof and you're going into the following year ... and we were floundering. And when you're floundering in New York, it's hard to overcome the stigma. And the players are getting killed, I'm getting killed, and you're trying to fight through it. And it just didn't work out."

The Knicks chose Woodson, and in so doing made it clear Anthony wouldn't just be taking the shots in New York, he would be calling them, too. (It was Anthony, after all, who had called Lin's offer sheet from the Rockets "ridiculous.") But at this point, who's going to argue with the Knicks' decision to move on? Woodson is 25-7 (.781) in the regular season since taking over, and Anthony has attacked the first month of the regular season like a man obsessed with having his name in the conversation with the great players in the game.

D'Antoni? He has landed on his feet, too -- though one of them is a little wobbly under the weight of knee replacement barely three weeks ago. The truth is, it was probably best that he moved on from New York, though he never could've imagined moving on to an opportunity to regenerate his past success like this.

"Big challenge, but I've got big players to help me with the challenge," D'Antoni said.

One of D'Antoni's favorite point guards walked out of his office at 9:30 p.m. PT on Sunday night, and his all-time favorite will be walking in soon to let him know he's ready to go. Out went Lin, walking quickly down the hallway toward the exit of Staples Center, backpack bouncing and head down. In will come the great Nash, who is expected to reunite with D'Antoni in a week or so after he recovers from a fractured leg.

Nash is 38 now, and it has been five years since their basketball minds and artistry last teamed up in Phoenix. Nash somehow completes this circle of basketball life for D'Antoni -- the journey from Phoenix to New York, from the exhilaration of Linsanity to the disgrace of resigning, to this improbable new beginning with the Lakers.

"I don't think we know," D'Antoni said this week, when asked if Nash can still be Nash. "I think he can. I think he's going to be great. I can't wait to get him back. I think he's got two or three years left in him. He didn't have a whole lot of speed in Phoenix, so he hasn't lost anything. But he's smart. He's smart and he can play. Nobody works harder than him. We've just got to get his leg well and I just think the people of Los Angeles will come to appreciate an unbelievable player. Unbelievable."

Unbelievable pretty much sums it all up.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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