But the real story here lies not with the visitors, but rather, with the host New York Knicks and how they've thrived in the absence of Linsanity. The Knicks famously (or infamously?) declined to match Houston's three-year, $25.1 million "poison pill" offer sheet to Lin this past summer, inciting incendiary reactions from fans and followers across the spectrum of opinion.
On one end: How could the Knicks let Lin go after the magical run he had? Even worse, how could they replace a 24-year-old rising star with a 39-year-old Jason Kidd, an overweight Raymond Felton and a 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni? Was money really the main concern for a franchise that practically prints its own currency?
One the other: How could Lin leave the Knicks after all they'd done for him? Why would Lin want to leave New York? Why did he take the money and run? Why did Houston offer him so much money? Why couldn't he make it work with talented players like Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire?
At present, it appears as though the realities of the 2012-13 NBA season favor the latter. The Knicks are arguably the league's most pleasant surprise so far. Their 18-5 record is tops in the Eastern Conference, and they're the only squad in basketball that's yet to tally an "L" at home.
Replacing Linsanity with Felton and Kidd (and, to a lesser extent, Prigioni) has sparked an offensive renaissance in the Big Apple. The Knicks currently rank second in the league in offensive efficiency and are raining down threes at an all-time record pace. Moreover, New York is turning the ball over on just 10.7 percent of its possessions—the lowest mark in the NBA.
Whatever problems Carmelo Anthony had in his first season-and-a-half as a Knickerbocker seem to have evaporated as well. He's second in the Association in scoring at 27.9 points per game, with a true shooting percentage of .592 and an similarly robust .455 from three. Anthony has adapted beautifully to the role of "stretch four" under Mike Woodson, leveraging his skills as a spot-up shooter and post-up threat with deadly proficiency.
Not that the Knicks rely all too heavily on 'Melo's presence. They're 2-1 without him this season, including a 20-point road win against the defending-champion Miami Heat. According to Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com, Anthony may not be in uniform against the Rockets on account of a lingering ankle injury.
Nor have they been left wanting for Amar'e Stoudemire or Iman Shumpert, for that matter. Both are still recovering from their respective knee injuries and have yet to play a single minute this season as a result.
There's some concern about the effect Stoudemire's return may have on the Knicks' budding team dynamics. But with the way Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton are pressuring opposing defenses and moving the ball around the floor, they should be able to lubricate the once-stodgy Knicks offense just fine with another supposed ball hog in the lineup.
All of which is to say, the Knicks are already very good and have every reason to believe they can and will improve as they roll through the 82-game schedule.
Similar praise could be heaped upon the Rockets. They're just a game out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference despite a seismic roster shakeup over the summer and the absence of head coach Kevin McHale for a significant stretch.
And with Jeremy only occasionally rekindling the Linsanity that landed him the big contract in the first place. His per-36-minute averages this season (12 points, 6.6 assists, .483 true shooting percentage) are a far cry from those he posted last season in New York (19.6 points, 8.3 assists, .552 true shooting percentage). He's playing more minutes and he's taking more threes, but his free-throw attempts are way down.
The list of possible explanations for Lin's apparent regression is a lengthy one. He's a young player who's still trying to find himself as a pro. He has all of 87 NBA games (48 as a starter) under his belt. He favors his right hand too frequently and doesn't shoot consistently from the perimeter. The adjustment to a new role on a new team in a new city has done him no favors. Neither has his slow recovery from knee surgery or his need to share a backcourt with newly-acquired star James Harden.
By the same token, many of these concerns are hardly eye-opening, at least for the Knicks. He was a streaky shooter in New York, one who didn't have a functional left hand and was prone to giving the ball away. His struggles next to one ball-dominant wing (Harden) this season are eerily reminiscent of those he suffered next to another (Anthony) in 2011-12. He opted against suiting up for the Knicks during the playoffs while judging his knee to be about 85 percent of its healthy capacity and is still being lambasted for it.
This isn't to say that Lin won't improve as a player, or even that he wouldn't have had he stayed in New York. He'd had all of 25 starts as a Knick, a number of which came without Carmelo, Amar'e or both. In time, perhaps, he would've learned how to play with those two, learned what it takes to be a starting point guard in the NBA. Barring catastrophic injury or complete collapse, he still has most of his career ahead of him and has shown flashes of his "old" self this season.
But the Knicks aren't trying to develop another star. They're not trying to wait for a youngster like Lin to "figure it out." They already employ two highly-paid superstars and a third (Tyson Chandler) who's probably the best center in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks have the pieces to win now—whether they fit perfectly or not—and, as such, were justified in turning to veterans like Kidd, Felton, Prigioni, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas to fill out their ranks. To date, the front office has seen its faith in its pre-existing core rewarded by a sizzling start, not to mention the ever-rising expectations that typically accompany such returns.
Lin may be the center of attention for now, but his new team will be hard-pressed to accomplish in the West anything close to what his old team may have in store in the East.
And if this Lin-less train continues to roll, it may well be the Knicks capturing the biggest headlines and attracting the most eyeballs at season's end.
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