NEW YORK -- He never seemed to lose while playing in New York, and in that sense, nothing’s changed for Jeremy Lin. On Monday in his emotion-tugging return to his very own Disneyland, Lin said he “couldn’t wait to get it over with.” By halftime, neither could the Knicks.
And so the calendar year 2012 will show Lin finished 14-3 as a starter at the Garden. The latest victory came while wearing a Rockets’ uniform and a pair of bruises, one courtesy of a Tyson Chandler love-tap ruled a flagrant foul, the other a blistered eardrum courtesy of the fans. The record will also show that Linsanity officially died shortly after he was politely cheered during the pre-game introductions. Roughly 60 seconds later, or in a New York minute, after he whipped past the Knicks defense for two of his 22 points, he was clobbered with boos.
Welcome back to New York, Jeremy, and oh by the way, up yours.
“It was fine,” Lin said of the crowd’s about-face. “Actually, it was a lot better than I thought.”
He spent two months in New York last spring riding a magic carpet, and left Monday night on a high as well, after helping the Rockets end the Knicks’ perfect home record. Sure, it helped that Carmelo Anthony sat out this 13-point loss, but Lin had one of his better games of the year, with eight assists and a pair of steals to go with the points, undoubtedly leaving most of Houston to wonder: When will we see the Lin that overwhelmed the game last February-through-March?
Well, perhaps by next February or March.
Or more likely, never.
Even Lin suspects the 22 points and seven assists he averaged during a head-spinning stretch last spring is beyond his reach and his talent. That was the perfect storm, caused by a losing team in the largest media market and a dozen games where everything went right. It got Lin a pair of Sports Illustrated covers, international attention and $30 million from the Rockets but nothing from the Knicks except well wishes.
There are few players who can sustain for an entire season what Lin did for a month and a half. Really, that’s Chris Paul territory, and Lin isn’t that level of player, not before, not now, not ever. All he’s trying to do is find a comfortable middle ground where he won’t be considered a total fluke, nor a complete bust, and that’s a level he and the Rockets are willing to accept even if others are not.
He’s had maybe a half-dozen impact games, tops, in the 24 played by the Rockets so far, and his main job is to develop a rapport with James Harden that he never really had with Melo. In Houston, Lin is respected and accepted but nothing like the folk hero treatment he earned in New York, and that fabled player is gone for good.
“I’m in a very different place now,” Lin said. “My mindset is different. I’ve moved on and they’ve moved on.”
That would be the Knicks, who despite losing for the first time in 11 tries at home are sitting in the front of the class in the East. Not only are they feeling comfortable here in the post-Lin world, they suspect there’s lots of room for improvement. Anthony should be healed from a bum ankle in time to show the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday who’s the best team in New York. Meanwhile the organization holds its breath regarding Amar’e Stoudemire and whether he’ll be addition by addition, or subtraction.
And as Lin said: “They’re missing some key guys and right at the top is Shump,” meaning Iman Shumpert, a fine backcourt player but certainly not in the same class as Melo, and maybe Lin was tweaking the star who shed no tears when Lin left.
In two weeks, just up the street from the Garden, a famous ball will drop and 2012 will become a faint memory. With the exception of LeBron James, no player in basketball lived quite like Lin this year. His story resonated beyond the sport, for so many different reasons: cultural, educational, inspirational. And none the above apply to him anymore, at least to that extent. What he wants is an identity he can live with, a more normal existence where expectations and also dreams are kept in check and more in line with who he really is. That’s what Lin will spend 2013 searching for, that player who feels comfortable in his new skin.
“I hope this is the start of a nice run for him,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “Jeremy’s a hard worker and a nice kid. I was happy for him tonight. We kept telling him to be more aggressive and maybe he felt comfortable here.”
But he only plays once a year in New York. There are 81 other games where Lin must carve out a reputation, and remember, he’s only 24 and hasn’t played a full season yet in the league. Like the rest of the Rockets, the youngest team in the NBA, Lin is learning. The difference is, his teammates don’t have the benefit -- or maybe the curse -- of a magical month and a half in their backgrounds.
Five times after the game, Lin mentioned the word “fun.” And for one more night, it certainly seemed that way for someone who outplayed Kobe Bryant on the very same floor 10 months ago. The Knicks hold no grudges or hard feelings about Lin or the way he left, and even his replacement Raymond Felton said: “Jeremy deserved everything he got.”
That includes the boos that bopped him upside the head as he shot free throws in the second quarter Monday. It was a New York-style baptism for a player once sent by the basketball gods to rescue the Knicks. What Jeremy Lin learned Monday is ovations are suddenly shorter. Like memories.