NEW YORK -- It is useful to view the season Jeremy Lin has begun to put together for the Houston Rockets in the context of his real and supposed weaknesses that led the New York Knicks to let him go for nothing, failing to match his offer sheet from the Rockets following the 2011-12 season. Sure, Lin scored points in huge bunches, becoming an international sensation and, it must be remembered, playing deeply compelling basketball to watch. But it's not like he could succeed as a supplementary player, hit three-pointers, or even stay healthy. And that ability to get to the basket and finish, among the best in the league, had to be a fluke, right?
For those reasons, or due to the pique of James Dolan, the Knicks decided to let Lin go. They had a very good 2012-13, though other than Raymond Felton's hot first month, they probably would have been better with Lin.
And that was supposed to be the tradeoff: win now with Felton, rather than waiting for Lin to develop.
Meanwhile, Lin's play in Houston, oddly enough, has become a secondary story. Before Lin even played a game with the Rockets, Houston traded for James Harden. Suddenly, a player who plays best with the ball in his hands needed to play alongside a player who plays best with... the ball in his hands.
So it's taken a while. Lin posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 14.9 in his first full NBA season, at age 24, in a new city, trying to live up to Linsanity, and oh right, overcoming knee surgery.
To expect that he wouldn't get better this season, at age 25, would be foolish. But it's still striking how much better he's been so far, and in what areas.
Lin is playing 34.3 minutes per game, or an almost identical average to the 34.1 he posted during the 25 starts (and unforgettable revelation that Saturday night against the Nets) with the Knicks during what most anthropologists consider "Linsanity". He played all 82 games last season. Even with a shoulder injury costing him some playoff games, durability isn't a serious question anymore.
He's doing all that off the bench, though, Rockets coach Kevin McHale wisely alternating him with Harden often to maximize the amount of time Lin can be Lin.
Lin, though, has worked hard on his game to make sure he can help the Rockets with Harden on the court as well.
Lin shot 32 percent from three in 2011-12. That improved to 33.9 percent last season for the Rockets, but this hides the improvement he showed. In 34 games from February 1 on, he shot 39.3 percent from three. And this season, in his first nine games, Lin was at 51.4 percent.
Think about this. Lin could get to the basket as often, and as effectively, as virtually anyone in the league, even though defenders could sag off of him knowing his three-pointer was an average weapon.
It's like Happy Gilmore just learned to putt.
Accordingly, Lin entered Thursday's game against the Knicks with consecutive 30+ point performances. It should be noted that's the first time he's ever notched two such games in a row. In all of Linsanity, he had one, total.
His PER of 19.9 appears safe for now, with the heavy reliability on usage within the stat, and Harden back on Thursday, not to mention Dwight Howard. While I don't wish injury on anyone, I wouldn't have minded if Harden took an extra game off, allowing Lin to shoot 15 threes, as he did Wednesday night in Philadelphia, making nine of them.
But Lin's 31 points against the Raptors came with Harden also playing 47 minutes, and Howard 44. He's been exploding, but not because everyone else is out, the way Linsanity was born. And he's at a PER of 18.7 through nine games, which is excellent, and refutes the uncertain proposition that he'd somehow been a fluke for 35 games. It would have been an NBA first.
"Sure he's advanced," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said of Lin. "He's a better player. He had his ups and downs when he first went into Houston, but he's starting to come into his own now as a player. That's what you expect, when you play in this league. You expect to get better."
On this night, though, his threes didn't fall. When the Rockets missed their first six attempts from three, Lin entered the game at the 5:33 mark of the first quarter. He quickly showed an improved defensive technique, moving around a screen and managing to stay in front of Felton, whose forced action led to a turnover.
His legs were tired, leading to short threes, but Lin scored 10, and the Rockets somehow managed to hold a 53-52 lead at the break. This, even with Anthony scoring 26 and Howard just 2, though much of the latter came from Howard dishing out of endless double teams for open threes.
But Anthony began forcing things in the second half, while the Rockets' endless forays into the paint served as a brutal reminder of how poorly the Knicks protect the rim. Lin's got himself a Dwight Howard now on his team, and Tyson Chandler is missing for the Knicks. By the time Lin re-entered with five minutes left in the third, the Rockets led by eight. Lin missed a pair of three attempts, then sank one from just inside the line.
Then came a key sequence early in the fourth, when the game was up for grabs. Lin drilled a three over Metta World Peace, and followed with a dunk over no one, really. It was disorienting to see Lin do magical things, and to have the Garden respond with an absence of emotion. Anthony returned, and Lin hit another step-back jumper over him, too.
Anthony countered, but he had little help beyond Bargnani, while the defense allowed Rockets of all sizes to get to the basket whenever they wished. Lin had plenty of help, meanwhile. Linsanity was muted, and for a reason: Lin wasn't looking to do nearly as much offensively as he had earlier in the week, knowing what his team needed. They have that James Harden guy, and he hit a three to extend the Houston lead to nine with 3:31 left, and take what was left of the energy out of the building.
The Knicks had one more run in them, behind Anthony, mostly, and Harden dominated the ball on Houston's end. Lin was, as he said he hoped he'd be Wednesday night in Philadelphia, a subplot.
It was as if Anthony still needed to prove his dominance. Lin, much younger, was content to be a key cog on a contending team.
"I hit a lot of shots yesterday," a relaxed Lin told reporters when it was over. "I didn't hit a lot of shots today. That's just how the game works."
But he hit enough to help his team win.
"I think it's progress," Lin said. "We played more as a team today. Moving the ball around. Sharing the ball. We played really unselfish today."
It wasn't Linsanity, not on the court, not in the once-delirious stands. It was just winning basketball, keyed by an emerging star in Lin.