NEW YORK — At first, it was hard to deny the resemblance, in both sight and sound, between Jeremy Lin’s first return to Madison Square Garden as a visitor and his final game as member of the home team at the basketball Mecca.
The last time Lin took the court at MSG, on March 24 against Detroit in front of an arena full of blue and orange No. 17 jerseys, he did so as a legend in the making — and deservedly so.
That was before a knee injury ended Linsanity just as it was getting started; before Lin was widely panned for sitting out the playoffs despite pronouncing himself to be at “85 percent” health; before the Knicks were reportedly ready to write the global sensation a blank check to stay in town; and before New York’s about-face as they let Lin walk, declining to match his back-loaded $25 million offer sheet with Houston.
And despite all that — despite everything that had occurred since March 24 — when the Knicks’ public address announcer called out Lin’s name in front of a familiarly packed house Monday, this time as Lin wore No. 7 for the visiting team in red, it didn’t really sound or feel like much of anything had changed.
It was like Lin had never left, like the events of the last few months just hadn’t happened, like he was still a Knick. The home crowd offered a roaring ovation for their ex-savior, a kind of thank you for the transformative impact Lin had during a 35-game ride that many hoped wouldn’t end.
But then the game got started, and Lin quickly reminded the New York fans what they were missing with him gone, and by the end of the Rockets’ 109-96 rout, the Knicks’ first home loss of the season, Lin had a once-adoring crowd booing his existence and cursing his name — making him just another villain in a league full of them.
“I had fun out there,” Lin said after the win, which improved Houston to 12-12 on the season while dropping New York to 18-6. “I am still thankful for the fans, and it was a lot better than I had thought.”
Houston led by as many as 27 points in Monday’s drubbing, and the fans who cheered Lin’s introduction proved unwilling to do the same as Lin’s new team demolished his old one for the second time this season. But never did Lin feel less welcome in his old home than when former teammate Tyson Chandler laid him out with a flagrant foul under the basket with 3:39 left in the first half.
At that point, fans were booing Lin just for touching the ball, but he received his loudest boos of the night as he shot the two subsequent free throws after the Chandler foul. Then fans mockingly cheered his airball with 2:29 left in the half. Another hard foul from Chandler with 1:10 left in the second quarter officially knocked whatever Knick was left in Lin out of him for good; in less than 24 minutes, Jeremy Lin had become one of the bad guys.
“He hit me hard,” Lin said with a smile later, “but I still kept coming.”
Indeed, Lin did keep coming, dominating the paint all night — a far cry from his passive performance in the Rockets’ first meeting with New York, and much to the delight of his coach, Kevin McHale. Lin got to the basket early and often and scored eight first-quarter points on four layups at the rim. Lin added eight more second quarter points, and then scored six points in the second half, with the game well in hand.
“We keep on telling him to be aggressive and attack,” McHale said. “Maybe he felt comfortable here in Madison Square Garden — I don’t know, but he played great.”
In addition to Lin’s 22-point effort, his second-highest scoring game of the season, the Rockets also got a superstar performance out of fellow newcomer James Harden, who had 28 points and 10 boards in the win.
This Rockets team is at its best when the guards are both playing well — as they did back in Houston’s second game of the season, when Lin and Harden combined for 66 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists — and Monday’s win seemed to be a step in the direction McHale is hoping to take his club going forward.
“Harden and Lin scoring like that was big because they got in the paint,” McHale said. “James is just such a downhill player that he starts coming at you and it’s hard not to foul him. And when Jeremy starts getting in there, starts driving and starts breaking down the defense, it opens things up for our shooters.”
The Rockets also got solid contributions out of second-year man Marcus Morris, who had 13 points, and reserve guard Carlos Delfino, who hit four 3s and had 16 points off the bench. But Monday was all about Lin, who didn’t disappoint in his much-ballyhooed return to the city where he became a household name.
An undrafted guard from Harvard and the first Taiwanese-American to play in the NBA, Lin broke records last year for most points in the first three and five starts of a career, while also becoming the first player in NBA history to score 20 points and have seven assists in each of his first four starts. New York won nine of its first 11 games with Lin in a significant role, and as the wins piled up, Lin became a cult hero.
Eventually Lin’s name, more so than even Carmelo Anthony’s, became synonymous with the Knicks, and there was never a real sense — on the part of Lin or the Knicks — that he wouldn’t be back when this season started, making his stunning departure that much more unexpected.
“Obviously, it was the time of my life, just being able to play basketball and for us to win games,” Lin said. “And do it in the fashion that we did was so much fun, and energy, and buzz. That’s something I’ll remember forever.”
Thus far, Lin has failed to live up to the unrealistic expectations he set for himself during last year’s run, averaging just 10.8 points on 39.5 percent shooting coming in to Monday’s game. His struggles have provided some comfort for the Knicks and their fans, but so far, they’re not of any concern to McHale.
“If you’re competitive, you always probably expect more out of yourself and you’re a harsh critic of yourself, but there are times when you’ve got to give yourself a break,” McHale said. “This is a good league with a lot of good players, and he’s going to be fine.”
It’s too early to know what Lin’s legacy will be in Houston, but he looked like his old self Monday as his former following booed him on. And if his return to Madison Square Garden was any indication of what’s to come, he shouldn’t have any problem proving his worth as he continues to acclimate to the Rockets’ system — even if he’s never able to generate the same Linsanity he brought to New York.
“The easy part for me is just to make sure I don’t try to live up to that,” Lin said before Monday’s game. “As long as I do that, I’m not really worried too much about anything else. … I don’t think anybody from the Rockets organization is expecting me to recreate anything, and I’m not either.”