Jeremy Lin entered Monday night’s game against the New York Knicks — the first time he was playing in Madison Square Garden, site of Linsanity, circa February 2012, as a member of the Houston Rockets — on an all-time low. “Terrible,” Lin told the New York Post, when asked to assess the state of his game. “I’ll be my harshest critic but I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m doing terrible.”
The tonic, it turns out, was on 33rd Street.
Lin recaptured some of the magic that made him a global phenomenon on Monday, as he scored 22 points, and dished out eight assists, in Houston’s convincing 109-96 win over the Knicks. The Rockets handed the Knicks, who entered the game with the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, their first home loss of the season, denying them their first 11-0 start at home since the 1991-92 season. “It was a lot of fun playing on that court again,” says Lin.
The New York crowd probably wasn’t feeling pangs of regret as Lin shred the New York defense with his quick right-handed drives to the hoop, and clever fast break passes. After all, the Knicks are thriving, and the Raymond Felton-Jason Kidd guard combo that the Knicks imported to replace Lin has proved successful so far. And, as Lin has pointed out, he hasn’t played all that well this year. He entered the game shooting 39.5%, and scoring just 10.8 points per game. After being heavily criticized for failing to match Houston’s free agent offer sheet for Lin this summer, the Knicks have looked prescient.
Still, Lin reminded fans of his potential on Monday. And if Kidd’s age catches up to him as the season wears on, and Felton, whose conditioning has been questioned, starts to tire and cools off, this reminder could turn cruel, quickly.
The New York crowd didn’t begrudge Lin’s choice to make more money in Texas. When Lin’s name was called out during the starting lineup introductions, some three -quarters of the New York crowd offered polite cheers. There was just a smattering of boos. The jeers got louder, however, as Lin played better. And by the time he left the game with 2:25 on the clock and the Rockets up by 16, he got a mixed reception.
In the second quarter, Lin drove hard to the baseline, before New York center Tyson Chandler knocked him to the ground, earning a flagrant foul call. Lin has said that Chandler was like a big brother to him in New York last season. And big brothers often rough up their younger siblings. Lin was all smiles after the foul, while Chandler protested the flagrant call. “It was nothing malicious,” Chandler says. “Just a hard, solid foul.” Lin was not peeved. “I totally understand,” Lin says. “When someone comes into your lane, you want them to think twice about coming back. So he hit me hard. I still kept coming though.”
Coming into the game, the hoops analytics crowd took to dissecting Lin’s woes, and the numbers tell a simple story: Lin and backcourt mate James Harden, whom Houston acquired from Oklahoma City right before the season, are not compatible parts. Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated, for example, pointed out that Harden averages 27.1 points per 36 minutes without Lin on the floor — that average drops to 21.6 points per 36 minutes when Lin is there. Meanwhile, Lin averages 10.7 points per 36 minutes with Harden, and 19.7 points per 36 minutes without him.
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Harden and Lin both need the ball, for big chunks of time, to be effective. Harden is fond of sizing up his defender with the ball in his hands, and either blowing by him or pulling up for the jumper. Lin likes coming off a screen, darting into the lane, and creating a scoring opportunity for either himself or a teammate. They don’t really play well off each other in the half-court game: Harden, in particular, has little need to pass the ball off to Lin, who has been a lousy spot-up shooter this season (Lin is shooting 30% from three-point range). They’ll be at their best playing fast-break basketball, like they did in New York on Monday, and creating more possessions for the team — enough to keep both Harden and Lin productive.
As Lin walked into the Madison Square Garden press conference room after Houston’s victory, it was easy to think back to February, when Lin held court in the very same packed room as a member of the Knicks, after scoring 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers on a Friday night, on national television. After that surreal event, no one would have bet that before the year was even out, we’d be talking about Lin’s backcourt play for the Houston Rockets. The Houston Rockets?! Lin resurrected pro basketball in New York City. It was Linsanity! New York would never let him go, right? “I’ve moved on, they’ve moved on,” Lin says. “I have good memories, but at the same time, we’re all in a different place now.”
But it was nice to go back for one more night.