NEW YORK – The last time the New York Knicks lost a regular season home game, guard Jeremy Lin was nursing a season-ending knee injury after helping the Knicks save their season during the thrilling yet short-lived “Linsanity” craze that took the NBA, and even much the world, by storm.
Returning to a sold out Madison Square Garden on Monday night with a prior team that once cut him, Lin performed at the level that gained him overnight stardom with New York last season, as he complimented guard James Harden’s 28 points and 10 rebounds with 22 points and a game-high eight assists to help the Houston Rockets (12-12) earn a convincing 109-94 victory over the team that gave Lin his first real shot at achieving NBA glory.
“I had fun out there,” said Lin. “I am still thankful to the fans and [the reception they gave me] was a lot better than I thought [it would be].”
For Houston and Lin, that place isn’t as good as the one New York has been enjoying in Lin’s absence.
While Lin, who received a mixture of cheers and jeers, enjoyed a game that for at least one night, reminded many of his great personal story with the Knicks (18-6), things have changed a lot for both the rare Taiwanese-American NBA talent and former undrafted guard out of Harvard, and the organization he left behind for a big pay day.
“I’m in a very different place now, different mindset,” said Lin. “I’ve moved on, [the Knicks have] moved on, but I have good memories… at the same time, we’re all in a different place right now.”
Lin has struggled at times with his new mediocre squad while his old club has flourished to the tune of the best record in the Eastern Conference, even after failing to get revenge for its worst outing of the season – ironically, a 131-103 loss in Houston the night after Thanksgiving Day, during which other Rockets such as Harden did most of the damage as Lin played a limited role in beating New York that night.
Houston’s second victory over New York, to sweep the season series between the teams, was the Knicks’ first at home this season after they had gone the longest (10 games) of any team in the league this year without losing a game on their home floor.
And, New York is still at the same 18-6 pace that head coach Mike Woodson finished with last season with after taking over for head coach Mike D’Antoni, who due to injuries, was forced to play the little-known Lin with his job in jeopardy and the Knicks’ record at a disappointing 8-15.
What immediately followed, was an unlikely seven-game win streak for New York and a series of storybook events involving Lin which even Hollywood might have rejected for not being plausible enough.
Yet, it was all as real as it was sudden, with Lin going from the brink of being bounced out of the league and sleeping on the couch of ex-teammate Landry Fields, to turning the NBA on its ear with some surprisingly good play over a 19-game stretch under D’Antoni and continuing for another seven games under Woodson.
Lin’s new head coach, Kevin McHale, believed the visit back to where Lin’s rapid rise to NBA success began, probably helped last year’s international sensation relax and play better than he had at other times been this season.
“Maybe he felt comfortable here in Madison Square Garden,” said McHale. “I don’t know, but he played very well.”
That was the case from the start, as Lin and one of his replacements, point guard Raymond Felton (14 points, four assists, three turnovers) traded baskets for the game’s first points, with Lin beating Felton backdoor to tie the game, 2-2, after just 21 seconds.
Felton, who was brought back for a second stint with the Knicks, along with future Hall of Fame guard Jason Kidd (five points, three assists, three turnovers) and 35-year-old Argentinian rookie Pablo Prigioni (14 points, five assists, one turnover) have thus far combined as a formidable trio this year to help New York feel good about its offseason decision with foregoing an opportunity to match a second offer to Lin, by Houston, of $25 million over three years.
Still, while trading in his number 17 he wore as a Knick for the same number seven worn by New York’s best player, superstar forward Carmelo Anthony (who missed his second straight game with a sprained ankle), the once unheralded Lin shined again at MSG, where his old threads were still in attendance.
“A lot of people showed up and supported [me] and wore my old [Knicks] jersey,” said Lin.
Making four of five field goals, Lin scored eight points and handed out three assists in the opening quarter while Harden scored nine first-period points to offset 10 points by Felton and 12 more off the bench from guard J.R. Smith (17 points) to keep the Rockets within 31-29 as the quarter ended.
A three-pointer by Lin capped a 10-0 Houston run to start the second quarter, and an 8-1 spurt to close the half gave the Rockets a 56-42 lead by halftime.
However, following the Knicks’ worst quarter of the season, during which they were outscored 27-11, New York rallied behind 28-year-old rookie forward Chris Copeland (29 points, five rebounds), who was making his second NBA start.
Due to Anthony’s injury, and others to forwards Amar’e Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace, Copeland made his first career start in the Knicks’ last game (a win over Cleveland), scoring a then-career high 11 points.
Copeland nearly matched that total in a span of 3:09, while scoring nine straight New York points to pull the Knicks to within 60-55 on a layup with 6:18 left.
“He was one of the bright spots in the game [for us],” Woodson said of Copeland.
But, as quickly as the magic of Linsanity came and went in New York last year, is how fast the Rockets then put the game out of reach, making three-pointers on three straight possessions (two by Harden) to score the next 15 points in just 2:09, with Lin ending the game-deciding run with a steal and a fast-break layup.
The basket was one of many times that Lin, as is his forte, and his teammates, got to the basket, something that Woodson would like to see the Knicks improve.
“The defense wasn’t there tonight,” Woodson said. “We gave up too many shots at the rim. That’s a no-no in our system because when teams are scoring constantly in the paint, it takes some of the air out of your defense, so we have to get back to eliminating those easy buckets.”
“We didn’t stick to our defensive principles,” Felton added. “Jeremy and James were able to get to the basket too easily. “
Felton also commented on the way the Rockets had New York number twice this season. “Sometimes it’s like that,” he said. “You play a team and it’s a tough matchup for you. [The Rockets] are a type of team that spreads the court and [they] just try to drive and do a lot of isolations and screen-and-rolls. They have shooters and guys who can go off the dribble and sometimes that’s difficult to guard. But, at the same time, we got out of our principles a little.”
A three-pointer by forward Chandler Parsons (nine points, five rebounds), who torched New York for a career-high 31 points in the teams’ last meeting, pushed Houston’s lead to as much as 94-67 with 9:10 left in the game, and the Knicks could get no closer than the final margin the rest of the way.
As for finally losing at the Garden, falling just two wins shy of the franchise mark for home victories to start a season, Felton said, “We had a great run here and now we have to start a new streak.”
New York will get an opportunity to do that on Wednesday night at 7pm, when it hosts the Brooklyn Nets (13-10), who in a highly anticipated matchup between the two New York City rivals, will make their first visit ever to MSG since moving from New Jersey this season. The teams split a pair of close games earlier in the year.
The game against the Nets will continue an interesting stretch for the Knicks, who before losing to Lin during their current six-game home stand (during which they are 4-1), defeated the Denver Nuggets and forward Danilo Gallinari (New York’s 2008 lottery draft pick), and the Los Angeles Lakers, coached by D’Antoni.