By CHRIS ALTRUDA
Just five starts into his NBA career, Jeremy Lin may be running out of ways to outdo himself.
Riding high with a burgeoning national following after more late clutch play, Lin leads the surging New York Knicks into the opener of a five-game homestand Wednesday night versus the Sacramento Kings.
Inserted into the starting lineup by coach Mike D'Antoni out of desperation just nine days ago following a career-high 25-point effort off the bench in a win against New Jersey on Feb. 4, Lin has skyrocketed to stardom with his unprecedented play with New York's first unit.
He has averaged 27.2 points - the highest scoring average for someone starting his first five games since the ABA-NBA merger - and 8.8 assists while shooting 50.0 percent as a starter in helping New York (14-15) grab the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race and extend its current winning streak to six games.
The legend of Linsanity grew again exponentially - his Twitter account now has more than 270,000 followers - in Toronto on Tuesday night, when he hit a tiebreaking 3-pointer with five-tenths of a second to play that capped a game-ending 13-1 run and gave the Knicks a 90-87 victory. The point guard, whose three-point play with 1:05 left tied the game at 87, also had a career-high 11 assists.
"I'm thankful that the coach and my teammates trust me with the ball at the end of the game," he said. "I like having it at the end of the game. I'm just very thankful."
Lin will undoubtedly get a hero's welcome at a raucous Madison Square Garden, likely to be feted by a crowd that has already taken to the Asian-American as one of its own - they have serenaded him with chants of "M-V-P" during his equally meteoric and unlikely rise to national acclaim during this win streak.
Lin's winning shot also overshadowed the return of Amar'e Stoudemire, who had 21 points and nine rebounds after missing four games following the death of his brother. The power forward seemed at ease running pick-and-rolls with Lin, who assisted on five of Stoudemire's baskets.
"I don't know what's going on in New York right now, but Jeremy's playing great," Stoudemire said. "He's playing phenomenal right now, it's amazing to watch him play out there. He's doing a phenomenal job."
The Raptors occasionally flustered Lin by double-teaming him above the top of the key, which contributed to him matching a season high with eight turnovers. While he has recorded at least seven assists in each game during New York's win streak, Lin also has committed six or more turnovers in four of them.
Whether the Kings can do similar things with Marcus Thornton likely to draw Lin defensively is uncertain. Sacramento (10-18) allowed a Chicago team without injured reigning MVP Derrick Rose to shoot 52.4 percent in a 121-115 loss Tuesday night.
The Kings nearly rallied from a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit as Thornton, Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins combined to score 78 points, but were unable to finish the rally as they fell to 3-13 on the road.
"They're a tough team," Evans said. "They play together. They run that high pick-and-roll good with the bigs. They ran it all night on us and got a lot of fouls. That's what killed us."
Sacramento has dropped six of seven on the road but has made the most of its recent trips to New York, winning four straight and six of seven there after dropping 16 of the previous 17.
The Knicks had an easy time in Sacramento on New Year's Eve, rolling to a 114-92 win as rookie Josh Harrellson had 14 points and 12 rebounds in his first NBA start in place of the injured Stoudemire.