On Sunday, with an eye on his first return to Madison Square Garden as a visitor since "Linsanity" took over the sporting world, Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin proclaimed his play thus far this year "terrible." Against the New York Knicks on Monday night, he was anything but, teaming with backcourt partner James Harden to notch the Rockets' second blowout of New York this season, a 109-96 win that wasn't as close as the final score indicates.
Playing in his first game at the Garden since joining the Rockets in restricted free agency this summer, Lin looked more like the hell-bent-for-the-rim thunderbolt that struck Manhattan in February than the tentative point man who's struggled through most of his first two-dozen games in Houston. He finished with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, eight assists, four rebounds, two steals and four turnovers in 39 minutes as the Rockets got back to .500 and handed the Knicks their first home loss of the season.
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The MSG faithful gave Lin a warm welcome when he was announced as part of the Rockets' starting lineup:
And Lin seemed at home right from the start.
He lost counterpart Raymond Felton on a backdoor baseline cut for Houston's first basket just 36 seconds into the game. He followed that with a drive to his left — remember when he couldn't do that? — around an Omer Asik screen toward the baseline that led to an easy deuce when no Knick rotated behind center Tyson Chandler's help defense to protect the rim. (This would become a recurring theme.)
After making four of his first five shots for eight points, dishing three assists and playing some tight defense on Felton in a strong Houston first quarter, the moment came. When he received a pass at the 3:23 mark of the first quarter, the pregame cheers were gone, and the Garden crowd began to boo Lin. They booed him the next time he touched the ball, too, and continued to jeer him throughout the first half. This is the kind of thing that happens in arenas when the visiting point guard eclipses his season scoring average (10.8 points per game) with more than nine minutes left in the second quarter, even if he did once wear the home team's colors and author some of the most mesmerizing moments in the team's recent memory.
Perhaps no play better symbolized the difference than a baseline drive at the 3:39 mark of the second quarter. The Rockets swung the ball to Lin in the right corner, he attacked the basket along the baseline and elevated ... and a rotating Chandler hammered him, going for body more than ball and sending the guard crashing to the floor:
Lin got up smiling after the body block, which was called a flagrant foul, but the moment marked a shift; the game, the emotion, the vibe had changed. The Garden crowd booed him loudly as he stepped to the line to take his freebies; he missed the first (I guess the ball kind of lied?) before making the second.
There were plenty of reasons to smile for Lin in the first half, which he finished with 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting, four assists, two rebounds, one steal and plenty of active, helping-hands defense. After a strong 31-point first quarter that saw them shoot 63.6 percent from the floor, the Knicks were dismal in the second, missing 10 of their first 11 shots through the first six minutes and finishing the frame 4-for-24 from the floor, including a 1-for-10 mark from long range. Noted for their make-the-extra-pass ethos and careful ball control throughout their blistering 18-5 start to the season, New York failed to notch an assist and turned it over five times in the second.
The Rockets, on the other hand, remained hot. They shot 50 percent from the floor in the second, steadily marching to the free-throw line behind the unfettered paint penetration of Harden and Lin, and outscored New York 27-11 in the frame to take a 56-42 lead into intermission. It was the Knicks' first double-digit halftime deficit at home this season.
New York cut the lead to five just before the midway point of the third behind nine straight points from unheralded reserve Chris Copeland, making his second straight start at power forward in place of leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, who suffered a sprained left ankle in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers last Thursday. But the tide soon turned back in the Rockets' favor, as Houston strung together a Lin layup (courtesy of defensive basket interference by Ronnie Brewer), a Marcus Morris dunk off a fast-break dish from Lin, a Morris triple off a Lin penetrate-and-kick, consecutive Harden 3-balls from the right wing and a Lin steal off Jason Kidd that he took coast-to-coast. The Lin layup capped 15 unanswered points that pushed the Houston lead to 20 at 75-55, silencing the Garden crowd in a total inversion of the way he thrilled them just 10 months ago.
As was the case in Houston's Nov. 23 beatdown of the Knicks at the Toyota Center, Lin had plenty of help in making New York look clueless on both ends of the floor. Harden, the NBA's fifth-leading scorer coming into Monday, led the way with 28 points on 9-for-18 shooting, adding 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in just under 38 minutes. Morris (13 points, 2-for-3 from 3-point range) and reserve forward Carlos Delfino (16 points, 4-for-7 from deep) also played key roles for the Rockets, who finished 10-for-29 from long distance, beating the frequent-firing Knicks (just 9-for-31 from deep) at their own game.
The Knicks were led, surprisingly, by Copeland, whose energy and second-half stroke resulted in a game-high 29 points in 28 1/2 minutes. Non-Copeland Knicks struggled from the floor, shooting just 39.5 percent; as he has at times in marquee matchups, Felton struggled on Monday, scoring 14 points on just 7-for-18 shooting, and leveling his four assists with three turnovers. The Knicks offense — which looked largely punchless without Anthony, who remains day-to-day with the ankle sprain — could soon get a boost from the return of Amar'e Stoudemire, who has yet to play this season after suffering a left knee injury in October, but whom Woodson said Monday has been cleared for practice.
As bad as the offense was, though, the defense — as it was in allowing 131 points to Houston back in December — was just as tough for Knicks fans to stomach. Chandler had 18 rebounds, but was unable to deter the driving Rockets at the rim once they'd beat the Knicks' perimeter defenders, and New York repeatedly failed to prevent Houston leaking out in transition, leading to 25 Houston fast-break points. On that score, the Knicks could've really used perimeter stopper Iman Shumpert, who's still working his way back after tearing his left ACL during the Knicks' playoff series against the Miami Heat back in April; he's not expected back until after New Year's.
Heading into Monday, the Knicks turned the ball over on a lower percentage of possessions than any other team in the NBA; against the Rockets, they coughed it up 17 times, leading to 21 Rockets points. After the game, according to Ben Taylor of the New York Times, Knicks coach Mike Woodson succinctly summed up the team's performance on both ends of the floor:
Coach Mike Woodson on tonight's game: "We played awful."
— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) December 18, 2012
And the Rockets played like a team that knew they could run the Eastern Conference-leading Knicks off the floor, provided both their backcourt stars played aggressively. They did, and after the opening moments of the second quarter, the Knicks never recovered.
In talking with reporters before the game, Lin discussed the fond memories he has of his brief time in the New York spotlight.
"It was just a fun time, obviously — it was the time of my life," Lin said. "Just being able to play basketball and for us to win games and to do it in the fashion that we did was so much fun, and so much energy and buzz. Definitely something I'll remember forever. [...] It'll always have a special place in my heart, for sure."
The energy and the buzz were a bit different on Monday, but they were definitely there — when Rockets coach Kevin McHale pulled Lin with 2:25 remaining in the fourth quarter and the game well in hand, the pregame cheers and the mid-game jeers melded into something else, something resembling a grudging, grumbling respect. Something tells me that when Lin looks back later on, he'll have fond memories of that sound, too.
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