Jeremy Lin returns to the Garden, disruptively

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Jeremy Lin answers questions. (Howard Megdal)
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The elements of Linsanity were present at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, sort of.

Jeremy Lin was there, in Houston Rockets red, as was a raucous Knicks crowd.

Carmelo Anthony, sidelined by an ankle injury, and Amar'e Stoudemire, still making his way back from a knee injury, were offstage.

The expectations for Lin himself had been dramatically downgraded on his return, though.

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In Houston, Lin has been struggling to co-exist with James Harden, his high-scoring backcourt partner. If Carmelo Anthony's propensity for ending possessions with shots was supposed to short-circuit Lin's show, imagine how it is affected by Harden, who frequently brings the ball up himself, leaving Lin a spectator off the ball throughout.

Lin's season reached its nadir on Sunday in Toronto, a place of notable success during his epic run last season. He scored just seven points, then pronounced his performance "terrible."

So Lin's performance on Monday night, a dominant offensive show in Houston's 109-96 win that buried the Knicks under a barrage of spirited drives to the basket and beautiful passes, was nearly as unexpected as that original, breakout night against the Nets last February.

The Garden's response to the sight of last year's idol was approrpiately schizophrenic, particularly as the game went on. 

It wasn't quite a homecoming, since he's playing for another team, and New York isn't exactly pining for him, after the Knicks' strong start to the season. But there was plenty of residual affection for him, or at least appreciation: Lin did something special in New York last year, and by all accounts was shocked when the Knicks never actually attempted to match the offer Houston made him.

Judging from the crowd response last night, the Knicks fans like Lin but have moved on. He got a healthy ovation at the start of the night, but there were relatively few of those Lin 17 jerseys that were seemingly everywhere late last season. The fans wore Anthony 7, Chandler 6 and even Novak 16. The Lin shirts stayed in the closet.

For what it's worth, in last night's game, Lin easily outshone his Knicks replacement, getting to the basket at will while Raymond Felton continued his rekindled love affair with contested, long two-point shots, stifling the Knicks' offense in the process.

The contrast suggested that the Knicks could have had their cake and eaten it, too.

(The rules governing N.B.A. roster construction meant the Knicks had the chance to add every single other member of this 18-6 roster, and keep Lin as well. And every time Carmelo Anthony misses time, or goes to the bench, a point guard who can create his own offense would give this Knicks team a dimension it simply doesn't have in Felton.)

Lin's success didn't wear well with the crowd. They tried booing him when he got the ball, but that didn't really take. Lin seemed to respond to it each time by getting around and through the defense for another layup, or sending a laser out toward the three-point line to another Rockets shooter.

At the same time, the Knicks were, for maybe the first time all year at home, giving the crowd almost nothing at all. Other than J.R. Smith, the Knicks were consistently a step slow on the defensive end, while offensive possessions lacked the creativity and passing that had been the hallmark of this team's 18-5 start.

A 13-4 run to start the third quarter brought the Knicks to within five points, 60-55. If antagonizing Lin didn't fit, the more familiar feeling of cheering on the Knicks as they battled back seemed to unite the crowd for the first time all night.

And just as suddenly: disaster. Lin orchestrated a 15-0 run to push the lead to 20 and effectively end the game. No one booed the lax offensive efforts that led to Lin steals, or the previously unseen coordination between Lin and Harden that led to repeated easy baskets. The reaction was mostly a quiet grumbling. By the end of the third quarter, Harden had 26 points, Lin had 20 points and nine assists, and Houston had a 23-point lead.

A bunch of fans left.

The arena held a mid-2000s feel for the first time since, well, before Jeremy Lin came off the bench back in February. Say what you will about the ups and downs since then, but the Knicks, on the court, have mattered ever since.

By the fourth quarter, Jeremy Lin was just another road player putting the finishing touches on a win over the Knicks. Chris Copeland came off the bench to score 29 in a losing effort, but given the circumstances of the game, no one much cared.

For Lin himself, the game was something of a breakthrough in terms of his uneasy coexistence with James Harden. For the first time Monday night, he looked like he'd figured it out.

"I thought we complemented each other really well," he told reporters after the game. "It's really important for both of us to be aggressive, to find our spots, pick our times, and feed the hot hand. I think tonight, we did a great job, a great step in the right direction in terms of figuring it out."

As always, Lin provided perspective, just as he had throughout Linsanity, despite being the man at the center of it.

"It's early, it's still really early," Lin said of the partnership with Harden, now just 24 games old. "I have a lot to learn in terms of playing with him, and likewise."

In a more downbeat press conference, a stoic Mike Woodson treated the losing effort like a one-off, which it probably is. 

"Well, we didn't play well again," Woodson said following the game. "They played great, and we played awful."

Of his defense: "It wasn't there tonight."

His level of concern: "I'm not concerned at all."

And the Lin thing?

"I love Ray and Jason," Woodson said when asked about his point guards, Felton and Jason Kidd. "That's why they're on our team, along with Pablo [Prigioni]. And Houston likes Jeremy Lin and Harden. Hey, we didn't play like we've been playing."

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