NEW YORK – Across from the visiting locker room inside Madison Square Garden, the door swung open and Jeremy Lin walked out with a smile stretching the length of Seventh Avenue. For the way he had been torturing himself, for the way the Knicks had gone to great lengths to minimize his legitimacy, Lin's face was flushed with sweet freedom.
"That was awesome," Lin beamed to a Houston Rockets official awaiting him. "That was so much fun."
The Knicks had wanted so badly to embarrass him Monday night, tried so hard that they lost a sense of themselves and twice now let Lin and the Rockets blow them out of the building. They had trashed him publicly and privately upon his departure to Houston as a restricted free agent, treating Lin like a momentary fairy tale free of substance and staying power. For one more stubborn night, Linsanity lived in the Garden.
All over again, Lin broke down defenders, pushed into the paint and scored on runners and layups and whizzed passes to uncovered shooters beyond the 3-point line. All over again, Lin had the game on a yo-yo here, had the Garden mesmerized. Jeremy Lin had 22 points and eight assists in the Rockets' 109-96 victory over the Knicks, Lin had validated himself.
He's no superstar in the NBA – and never will be – but he has a resolve, a fortitude that commands respect. He's never cowered, never backed down. The Knicks were waiting for him – unbeaten in the Garden, best record in the Eastern Conference, celebrating themselves as championship contenders – and Lin and James Harden dismantled them.
"I am glad this is over," Lin told Yahoo! Sports late Monday night. "This is a little bit of closure."
He had left behind the interview podium, the locker room and stood in an empty Garden. Finally, he smiled and allowed, "But I did have fun playing them."
The time of his life. Again.
Amid the Knicks' urgency to chase a championship, they're better off with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. Lin is better with this young, rebuilding roster in Houston, where he can succeed and fail at a different pace. Nevertheless, Lin never deserved the disdain and resentment heaped upon him on his way out of New York, the way his talent was easily dismissed as a mere Mike D'Antoni systematic creation.
Carmelo Anthony sat out Monday with a bum ankle, but the Knicks had 'Melo in Houston a month ago and still lost by 28 points.
"They are missing very key guys and I think right at the top of the list is Shump," Lin said. This was the closest thing to a dig that Lin delivered on his return to the Garden, listing reserve guard Iman Shumpert over Anthony, the MVP candidate.
'Melo never wanted Lin with the Knicks. He cramped his style, his space and played that D'Antoni pick-and-roll basketball that Melo loathed. Mostly, he resented the adoration of Lin that came with a blitzkrieg of tsk-tsk-tsks targeted at Anthony for past failures within the context of team. Anthony has come back with a vengeance this season, playing the most mature, most inspired basketball of his life.
Nevertheless, Linsanity is a lingering nuisance to 'Melo and some within the Knicks' core. Most of his teammates loved him, but some never got past petty jealousies. Once and for all, the Knicks wanted to humiliate Lin and puncture the romance that resounded with Lin at the Garden, pop him like a balloon floating down out of the rafters, losing air and altitude at a rapid rate.
Knicks center Tyson Chandler drilled Lin on a baseline drive, a blow to the head that inspired a flagrant foul call. Lin popped up, a smile awash on his face.
"He hit me hard," Lin said. "I still kept coming though."
He never stopped. This was the best of Lin: Instinctive, creative and working in synchronicity with Harden. After a troubling performance on Sunday in Toronto, Lin called his play "terrible," and those within the organization could see him fighting with himself.
"He's hard on himself, the way Shane Battier was here," GM Daryl Morey told Yahoo! Monday night at the Garden. "But Shane had more experience, more to draw from."
Something about the Garden loosened him up again. Something about the muscle memory of those magical 48 days a year ago, when Lin transformed himself from a D-League call-up to a global phenomenon. When Lin listened to the Knicks' advice to get himself an offer sheet for them to match in restricted free agency, he gladly obliged. Lin never wanted to leave New York, and never signed that $25 million offer sheet with an expectation that it would go unmatched.
"Houston kept telling me they didn't believe I'd end up with them either," Lin told Yahoo! Sports recently. "If I don't sign this, I don't have anything else to sign. I was signing it, and I was fully expecting to go back to New York."
Finally, he found his way back on Monday night and Linsanity lived again. On his twisting walk out of the interview room, through the corridors and toward the court level where family and friends awaited him, Lin seemed appreciative of the polite ovation that met him with the introduction of starting lineups, with the No. 17 Knicks jerseys that people pulled out of drawers, with the way that New York still remembered the spectacular regular-season run it had with this un-drafted kid out of Harvard, out of nowhere.
"I saw so many of the same people, the same season-ticket holders," Lin said on his walk through the corridors. "It was like yesterday."
Yesterday is gone, and Lin will forever be a shooting star in the Knicks' sky. He'll never be a franchise player, but Lin belongs and that's something that he desperately wanted the Knicks to see in these two games this season. He wanted them to see that he had staying power, that he had nerve, and so here he had come into Madison Square Garden breathlessly bursting to the basket, getting hit the way that they've hit him since he left town, and ultimately getting to his feet again.
Family and friends awaited him in an empty Garden late Monday night, and Lin excused himself and started walking toward them. For those unforgettable few weeks as a Knick, he made the Garden so loud, so alive. Linsanity made a noise that no one will ever forget here. Now, it sounded so different as a Rocket, his ability to take on the Knicks, take on this magnificent arena, now inspiring an uneasy, stunned silence.
The Knicks had wanted to dismiss him as mythology, a fleeting pixie that had come and gone with magic dust. They wanted Jeremy Lin to go away, never bother them again, and yet he had done it again here. Jeremy Lin is a good player, and perhaps simply he wanted the Knicks to see it for themselves on Monday night.
For everything that's been transposed about it – the look, the sound, the circumstances – Linsanity lived for one more stubborn night at Madison Square Garden.
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