Jeremy Lin Has Opponents Targeting Knicks as Heat’s LeBron James Awaits

Photographer: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks in action against the Dallas Mavericks in New York. Close

Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks in action against the Dallas Mavericks in New York.

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Photographer: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks in action against the Dallas Mavericks in New York.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat will experience Linsanity for the first time when Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks play in South Beach tonight.

While the Heat (26-7) are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the best winning percentage in the National Basketball Association and have won seven straight games by an average of 16.9 points, Lin has outshined them rising from bench player to season savior as the Knicks’ starting point guard.

That’s making him a source of motivation for opponents. Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets said after scoring a season-high 38 points against the Knicks Feb. 20 that he’s tired of the attention -- which has become known as Linsanity -- showered on Lin. Tonight, established All-Stars James, Wade and Chris Bosh will be relishing the opportunity to take the spotlight from Lin, said Kenny Smith, an NBA studio analyst for Time Warner’s TNT network, which is televising the game.

“Guys like to play games that mean something or that people pay more attention to,” Smith, a former point guard who won two NBA championships with Houston, said in an interview. “When they have their antenna raised when you walk in the building or they walk in your building, it brings out the best in the competition.”

The Heat are 9 1/2-point favorites, according to Bovada.lv, an online sports book based in Panama.

Lin has averaged 23.8 points and 9.4 assists in 10 games as a starter. The Knicks, who had an 8-15 record before Lin was given a chance at playing time, are now 17-17 as they seek to make the playoffs for the second time in eight years.

‘Exciting Team’

“He can really create for himself and his teammates,” Hall of Fame guard Magic Johnson, 52, said yesterday on a media conference call. “That’s why Knicks fans are enjoying basketball because they now have an exciting team.”

While Harvard University graduate Lin has erased doubts about whether he can succeed as the NBA’s first Chinese- or Taiwanese-American player, questions remain, said Smith.

“The key now is are the Knicks going to win?” he said. “We have to see if his statistical play is going to translate. We know he’s a good player, now we have to see if he’s really on a good team or not.”

Tonight’s game is the last for the Heat and Knicks before the league takes a break for the Feb. 26 All-Star Game.

“Everybody always says the game before All-Star, people are ready to get to All-Star weekend, I don’t think so,” James said after the Heat’s 120-108 win against the Sacramento Kings Feb. 21. “It could be one of the most watched games we’ve had in a long time, especially with what Jeremy Lin is doing.”

Ratings, Sales Surge

Lin, 23, has already provided unexpected returns for the Knicks, whose ticket prices, merchandise sales and television ratings have soared since he started playing. The Knicks play Boston, defending champion Dallas, San Antonio, Philadelphia and Chicago in an 11-day span after the All-Star break.

Madison Square Garden Network said the Knicks games against Dallas on Feb. 19 and New Jersey the following day yielded the highest ratings for regular-season events since the network began tracking household ratings at the start of the 1988-99 season. In the first seven games Lin started, the average rating was up 138 percent on MSG, the network said.

Lin, with a base salary of about $762,000 this season, will be facing James, who will earn $16 million this season with the Heat. Against five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 10, Lin scored a career-high 38 points.

Extra Impetus

Williams, the NBA’s highest-paid point guard at $16.4 million, said the furor surrounding Lin gave him extra impetus for the game three days ago in New York, when he hit a career- high eight 3-pointers in the Nets’ win.

“We definitely had this one circled,” Williams said. “I know I personally did because this was stuck in my mind that all this Linsanity started on me.”

Lin’s emergence began with a 25-point, seven-assist effort off the bench in a 99-92 win over the Nets on Feb. 4.

Oscar Robertson, who averaged 25.7 points and 9.5 assists over his Hall of Fame career, applauded Lin’s success while offering words of caution to a player who was cut by two other teams before latching on with the Knicks.

“I’d say just get your mind together and be prepared because it’s only going to get tougher, it’s not going to be easier at all,” Robertson, 73, told Bloomberg Radio.

Boosted by Firsts

Lin’s story resonates so widely because it’s more than just an unheralded player making the best of an opportunity, Smith said. Lin is the first Harvard graduate in the NBA since Ed Smith in 1954, is the first Chinese- or Taiwanese-American to play in the league and was cut twice by other clubs.

“We all at one time in our life have looked at ourselves and said, ‘You know what, we haven’t been evaluated right, our talent,’” Smith said. “Here’s a guy who, when he got the opportunity, he just didn’t kick the door in, he blew the door up. So we can all root for him.”

Even Roger Federer, who has won 16 Grand Slam tennis tournaments, says he is inspired by Lin and would like to meet him. Federer will be in New York to play Andy Roddick in an exhibition match on March 5.

And opponents are excited about the chance to be a part of the NBA’s biggest story, Smith added. Tonight, James and Wade will be looking to give the Heat their ninth win in 11 meetings against the Knicks.

“They know the game has more at stake,” Smith said. “The players actually enjoy that environment more than looking at him, and saying he doesn’t deserve it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Matuszewski in New York at matuszewski@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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