Lin shows Knicks why he's a keeper
Despite season's struggles, Rockets PG conjured some familiar magic at MSG
NEW YORK -- The artist formerly known as Jeremy Lin was back on his preferred stage, throwing himself fearlessly at the Madison Square Garden basket while recreating something he swore he did not want to recreate.
Yes, this was a worthy sequel to Linsanity. Some sentimental New York Knicks fans showed up in their Lin jerseys, maybe for the last time, and their former point guard showed up with some of his old flash and dash, definitely not for the last time.
Lin desperately wanted to beat the Knicks on Monday night, to finish 2-0 against them in his first season with the Houston Rockets, and there was no denying that. As he walked away from his 22-point, eight-assist performance in yet another Houston blowout of the Knicks, as he walked out of his postgame news conference and toward a reunion with family and friends in the Garden stands, Lin revealed he'd promised confidants he would hold nothing back against the most recent franchise to fire him.
"I just said, 'Tonight, I'm going to be free and fun. I'm going to throw everything else out the window and enjoy the game,'" Lin said. "I think that was the biggest thing, just enjoying this game and nothing else."
It hasn't always been fun in Houston. Lin called his play over the first 23 games "terrible," and he was struggling to find his niche with the ball-stopping James Harden as much as he'd struggled to find his niche with the ball-stopping Carmelo Anthony.
In fact, Lin had confided in a friend that he felt like he was back in New York with a healthy Melo all over again. It wasn't supposed to go down like this, not after Lin took the big money in Houston and signed a contract the Knicks refused to match.
Lin was supposed to be the featured star in the backcourt, the dominator of the ball, and then all of a sudden the Harden trade came out of left field -- the same place that had delivered Linsanity to the world last winter. The Rockets had acquired an elite scorer from the Western Conference champ, Oklahoma City, and they were celebrated around the league for their ability to close the deal.
But as much as Lin thought he'd failed his Houston coaches, Kevin McHale and Kelvin Sampson had failed him, too. They allowed Harden to iso the point guard into oblivion, leaving Lin to stand statue-still in the corner as a spot-up shooter, something he was never meant to be. The one night Harden was out with an injury, the night Houston's coaches had no choice but to turn to their point guard, Lin dropped 38 points on the Spurs.
Back at the Garden, Lin decided he was tired of being the mediocre player his numbers (10.8 points, 6.0 assists, .395 shooting from the floor) suggested he'd become. He didn't care that Harden was in uniform, ready to score 28 points of his own.
"Stay aggressive, be really aggressive -- that was my mindset coming in," Lin said as he walked the Garden hallways, a lively bounce in his step after his sweetest victory as a Rocket. "Be aggressive, have fun and let everything fall where it may."
Nothing fell quite like the Knicks' perfect record at home.
"I was so comfortable in the game," Lin said. "I saw so many of the same people, all the season-ticket holders and people like that. It was crazy. It was like yesterday."
In a pregame news conference, Lin called the experience of walking through the Garden door as an opponent "weird." He said he tried and failed to maneuver his way through the renovated building, making like the clueless rookie out of his undrafted past.
Linsanity, the maker of the phenomenon said, "was the time of my life." The 38 he scored on Kobe's Lakers, the shot against Toronto, the magazine covers, the overnight ascension from apartment-crashing, couch-hogging scrub to worldwide celebrity -- Lin said he'd remember those things forever.
But he also told everyone he was in an entirely different place now and on an entirely different journey. "I don't think anybody from the Rockets' organization is expecting me to recreate anything," Lin said, "and I'm not either."
He headed out onto the Garden floor for pregame warm-ups, stopping to share a few laughs with Amare Stoudemire. A circle of photographers and cameramen followed Lin to the scorer's table, where he laced up his shoes and listened as Sampson, McHale's lieutenant, gave him an animated pep talk.
And then Lin faced off against a Knicks team trying to make do without Carmelo Anthony, out with a bum ankle. Funny, but Lin always played his best basketball when Melo wasn't on the floor.
The point guard was the last Rocket introduced, and the crowd gave him a healthy round of applause. "It was actually a lot better than I thought," Lin said. His replacement, Raymond Felton, opened with a quick jumper and a hint that their shared season-long narrative -- Felton has been the superior player -- wasn't about to change.
But Lin immediately answered with a layup off a backdoor cut, sending a message of his own. The same fans who had showed their appreciation during introductions started booing Lin when the ball found him, and when he in turn found lanes to the goal.
The Rockets ran a layup line on the Charmin-soft Knicks, with Lin and Harden leading the charge. In the second quarter, the former teammate Lin likened to "a big brother to me last year," Tyson Chandler, decided he'd seen enough and flagrantly fouled the man of the hour with a right forearm to the head.
"I totally understand when someone comes in your lane, you want to make sure they think twice about coming back," Lin said. "So he hit me hard."
The point guard threw a bit of a hesitation dribble into his response before adding, "I still kept coming though."
He wasn't stopping for anything or anyone, not this time. He had 16 points at the half, and soon enough the juggernaut that had been 10-0 at home was down 27 in the fourth quarter.
Mike Woodson didn't even bother to play Felton in the fourth -- another victory for Lin, who survived some poor 3-point shooting (he still needs to work on that) and one mocking chant of "Airrrr-bawwwwl." Lin executed a few daring drives to his left (he's done some work on that) and ultimately inspired the same fans who had booed him to boo the Knicks.
"It was great to be back," he said, "and it was a lot of fun to play on that court again."
With 2:25 left, another former Knicks point guard, Toney Douglas, wrapped his arms around the first stringer, and Lin was off to the bench for good. He shared hugs with Steve Novak, Chandler and Knicks assistant Herb Williams after the final horn, and then did a spirited jog for the showers.
Lin would say he found a connection with Harden, at last, and that it represented "a big step in the right direction in terms of figuring it out." Of course, it's on Lin to figure it out, too, to find a way to make it work with Harden after he lost his chance to make it work with Anthony.
But this much is certain for the 24-year-old Lin, still a rookie quarterback: He is going to be a good player in this league for a long time, even if Felton wins a ring for the Knicks.
So as much as Lin savored the sight of fans wearing his old Knicks jersey ("I was like, 'Wow, that was really cool,'" he said), he needed to get on with the next stage of his career.
"I'm glad it's over," he would say before joining his family and friends in the stands, "just because, in some ways, I wanted closure."
Jeremy Lin got what he wanted Monday night when he left the Garden with plenty more than a 2-0 record against the Knicks.
He left the place with a reminder that Linsanity didn't happen by accident.