Jeremy Lin embraced Tyson Chandler, yukked it up with Amar’e Stoudemire and soaked in an ovation from the fans. Lin’s return to New York was all love before tip-off, and it was clear he still feels comfortable in the place where he set the world on fire for 25 glorious games last season.
Fond memories are only so strong, though. Once the game began, the cheers for Lin mixed with boos. When the Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, there was silence.
When Lin drove baseline and Chandler, whom Lin calls a “big brother,” delivered a message-sending flagrant foul, the crowd first cheered the contact, then booed the foul call, then cheered again when Lin missed the first free throw. At that point, Lin no longer was a beloved son making his homecoming. He was just another opposing guard dropping 22 points and eight assists to hand the Knicks their first home loss of the season.
It was fitting that Madison Square Garden, the site of so much of the “Linsanity” phenomenon, would also provide the clearest example yet of Lin’s failures and potential this season. For 39 minutes he was the player who led the Knicks to a 16-9 record and made NBA basketball in New York relevant again. He deftly navigated Omer Asik‘s screens and found James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris for open shots. He left Chandler flustered, barking at teammates to trap Lin’s pick and rolls or rotate to help when Lin got into the lane. The Knicks center looked a lot like those opponents last winter, sniping at each other while wondering how this 6-foot-3 Asian kid out of Harvard could repeatedly make them look like walk-ons from Columbia or Dartmouth.
These are the things Lin has not done this season with consistency. Prior to Monday’s game, he termed his season thus far to be “terrible,” although that was an exaggeration. Through 24 games Lin has a player efficiency rating of 13.6, just a few tenths of a point below the league average of 13.9, and that is exactly what Lin has been: completely and totally average. Perhaps two years ago, after he had been cut by two NBA teams and played three stints in the D-League, “average” would have been a triumph. By comparison to his thrilling ride with the Knicks, it qualifies as terrible.
At MSG on Monday, however, Lin was everything he has not been so far for the Rockets. He and Harden have had difficulty coexisting since each thrives with the ball in his hands, but in two meetings against the Knicks, they seem to have found a happy medium. Lin, a poor standstill shooter, took fewer spot-ups Monday while Harden, a creative shot-maker and passer, was still able to put up 18 shots and get to the line nine times with Lin handling the ball more.
Predicting the future can be dangerous, but one can safely say that Lin will never match his success of last season without a major roster overhaul in Houston. The Rockets do not have a pick-and-roll finisher anywhere near Chandler’s caliber. The big man’s value in that respect is highlighted not only in Lin’s regression without him, but also in Raymond Felton‘s leap forward with him after a terrible season and a half in Denver and Portland. Defenders tend to sag off the ballhandler in a Chandler pick and roll because they are worried about Chandler’s unmatched ability to finish at the rim. Needless to say, Asik does not command the same respect, and as a result Lin does not get the easy looks he got as a member of the Knicks.
Yet if Lin continues to utilize Morris and Parsons more, rather than Asik, he could turn around his fortunes — and by extension the Rockets’ — quickly. Sometimes it can take a while, in a new setting, to realize the strengths and weaknesses of the people around you. Lin spent the first 20-something games banging his head against a wall, trying to play the same way with Asik as he did with Chandler, to no use. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. The definition of Linsanity is to adjust, and to supersede people’s expectations by getting the most out of minimal talent — whether as an individual player or as a team.
In his one and only visit to Manhattan this season (barring a surprise trade), Lin got the emotional homecoming out of the way. The next time he comes to 8th Avenue, he will be just another opponent. And if he keeps doing what he did Monday, he would be just another opponent who is playing extremely well.