Jeremy Lin returned to Madison Square Garden on a mission.
The oft-inconsistent point guard has faced a bounty of scrutiny since the season began, and in the midst of the biggest game of the year to date, Lin was looking to prove to both the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks he belonged.
And he succeeded.
Lin carved up his former team, posting 22 points, eight assists and two steals on 60 percent shooting from the floor. It was a performance that was reminiscent of his outings during the height of Linsanity and further showcased his potential as a player.
By putting forth one of his best efforts of the season, Lin helped the Rockets end a seven-game road losing streak while handing the Knicks their first loss at home.
All the while ensuring that, from pregame introductions to the final buzzer, this was a return we would never forget.
It was nearly one year ago in this very building that Lin's path to prominence began.
On Feb. 4, 2012, Lin was inserted into New York's rotation in what was nothing short of a desperation move by then head coach Mike D'Antoni. That night, he logged 36 minutes and put up 25 points to go along with seven assists, leading the Knicks to a much-needed victory.
But that was then. This time, Lin was entering the Garden as an opponent. He was no longer New York's savior; rather, he was now the enemy.
Yet, if but for a moment, that didn't matter.
Lin used the time prior to the game to catch up with old teammates like Amar'e Stoudemire, while also attempting to recapture the jump shot it seems he left at the Garden when he headed to Houston.
NBA (@NBA) December 17, 2012
Then came the player introductions—the moment we had all been waiting for. Would Knicks fans boo the player that restored hope to their failing franchise last season? Or would the appreciation and gratitude he generated last season remain present in the stands?
As Lin's name was announced, he received a strong dose of cheers, not unlike the sounds that had become a staple for every time he touched the ball in this building only last season.
It didn't matter that Lin played for the opposing team.
Loud ovation for Jeremy Lin during pregame intros. #Knicks— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) December 18, 2012
Instead, the most brutal of fanbases paid homage to the unlikely hero that made them believe in the Knicks once again.
Even if only for a fleeting moment, Lin was a member of New York, of the Knicks, once again.
Once the pregame introductions were over with, it was all business for Lin, the Knicks and their fans.
New York cheered as Lin scored his first two points, but from then on, he wasn't shown any preferential treatment.
Nearly every time Lin touched the ball, fans jeered him as if he was just any other opposing icon. It was an inevitable turn of events, but a turn of events all the same.
No longer would New York hold a sweet spot for the budding point guard when he played the Knicks. No longer would he be sheltered from the wrath of the Big Apple.
Despite his transition from hero to villain, Lin played an unflappable first quarter. He scored eight points en route to helping the Rockets out to an early lead.
The Knicks, led by J.R. Smith's 12 early points, fought back, essentially spoiling Lin's opening performance.
Felton goes back-door for a layup to provide the #Knicks w/ a 31-29 lead heading into the 2Q. Smith/Felton combined for 22pts.— NBA New York Knicks (@nyknicks) December 18, 2012
Backed by the incessant heckling that had begun to plague Lin and Houston, New York took a two-point lead into the second quarter in what they hoped was the beginning of a victory.
The boos continued for Lin in the second quarter, but neither he nor the Rockets seemed perturbed by the suddenly less-than-warm reception.
Houston used an emphatic 16-3 run to assert its dominance in what was rapidly becoming a grudge match.
Knicks call timeout as Rockets are on a 16-3 run in Q2 to lead 45-34, 5:45. So far, @jlin7's return going extremely well with 13p/3a/2r.— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) December 18, 2012
Frustration began to mount for both the Knicks and their fans as they watched Lin and the rest of the Rockets have their way with New York's defense.
New York reached its boiling point when Tyson Chandler flagrantly fouled Lin, a hit that saw the point guard take an elbow to the head.
Chandler and the fans disagreed with the call, but there was no denying blatant contract had been made.
Though Houston closed out the half strongly, Lin threw up an air ball from three-point range late in the quarter, and Knicks fans took it as further opportunity to taunt the now opposing phenomenon.
No amount of air balls would be enough to stifle Lin's effect on the game, though.
Jeremy Lin still knows how to impress the NY crowd. His 16 Pts/4 Ast have Rockets staked to 56-42 lead over Knicks at half.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 18, 2012
He finished the half with 16 points and four assists, helping the Rockets maintain a 14-point lead heading into the locker room.
Lin continued to flourish in the third quarter while the Knicks struggled to maintain any sort of intensity on either end of the floor.
The Knicks are playing like a team that is missing Carmelo, Amar'e, focus, smarts and defensive intensity.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) December 18, 2012
New York had become listless while Houston continued to pour it on. And the Rockets showed no signs of slowing down.
Lin and his teammates had their way with the Knicks in the paint and were continuing to get easy looks at the basket from the outside.
The Rockets outscored the Knicks 27-18 in the period, led by Lin's four crafty assists.
It had become abundantly clear that this wasn't the follow-up performance to the blowout loss in Houston that New York had in mind. For Lin, however, returning to the Garden appeared to be just the medicine he needed to remedy his struggles.
If Lin hadn't scored, the Rockets & Knicks would be tied, but his 20 points equal the Rockets current lead, 2:42 in Q3.— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) December 18, 2012
He entered the fourth quarter having already dropped 20 points and with his team ahead by 23 points. He also helped take the volatile New York crowd completely out of the game.
The final period meant very little to the outcome of the game.
New York outscored Houston by 10 points in the fourth, a differential that still allowed the Rockets to cruise to victory.
Lin re-entered the game with just over eight minutes remaining and went on to cap his performance with two more points, giving him 22 on the night to go along with eight assists and an efficient performance from the field.
Houston removed Lin from the game with a little over two minutes to go. He received a healthy mix of cheers and jeers as he headed to the bench, fans seemingly torn between both appreciation and resentment for what he had done.
Nice hand for Lin from those who remain, along with some boos from those bitter he didn't sign never-offered deal from Knicks.— Howard Megdal (@LoHudKnicks) December 18, 2012
Soon after, the final buzzer sounded, and so ended Linsanity's return to New York.
What Twitter Had To Say About Lin's Return to New York
Lin and the Rockets were so dominant that it left many thankful Houston doesn't play in the Eastern Conference:
Good news: The Knicks don't play in the Rockets' conference.— netw3rk (@netw3rk) December 18, 2012
Frank Isola of the New York Daily News only furthered that notion:
If I'm the Knicks I don't want to play the Rockets in the NBA Finals.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) December 18, 2012
To call Lin and the Rockets dominant in this one would be a gross understatement, so Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press put New York's struggles in a more gripping perspective:
The Rockets are 48 points better than the Knicks in nearly 7 quarters of basketball this season. Or, as dominant as Knicks are against Heat.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) December 18, 2012
ESPN's Stats and Info department does much of the same:
The Knicks' two highest turnover totals this season (17 and 16) have both come against the @houstonrockets— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 18, 2012
It doesn't take long to conclude that the Rockets' dominance of the Knicks is somewhat ironic. After all, Lin, the point guard who fueled New York's rise prominence just last season, has now become the adversary that has brought this high-flying team back down to earth:
Finally, though, Lin himself reacted to his return, one that he admits invoked a strong sense of nostalgia:
Had a fun time back at MSG tonight...lots of great memories!! Thx to all the fans who showed out. All glory to God! twitter.com/JLin7/status/2…— Jeremy Lin (@JLin7) December 18, 2012
It certainly was a performance that reminded us of what Lin was actually capable of.
As well as one that perhaps forced the Knicks to understand and appreciate what type of player they allowed to walk away just a few months ago.
What the Experts Wrote After Linsanity's Return
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote about what the return meant to Lin himself, and how it provided the shafted point guard with the closure he may have needed:
Across from the visiting locker room inside Madison Square Garden, the door swung open and Jeremy Lin walked out with a smile stretching the length of Seventh Avenue. For the way he had been torturing himself, for the way the Knicks had gone to great lengths to minimize his legitimacy, Lin's face was flushed with sweet freedom.
"That was awesome," Lin beamed to a Houston Rockets official awaiting him. "That was so much fun."
The Knicks had wanted so badly to embarrass him Monday night, tried so hard that they lost a sense of themselves and twice now let Lin and the Rockets blow them out of the building. They had trashed him publicly and privately upon his departure to Houston as a restricted free agent, treating Lin like a momentary fairy tale free of substance and staying power. For one more stubborn night, Linsanity lived in the Garden.
Jared Zwerling of ESPNNewYork.com provided us with some insight into Lin's thinking as he headed back to the Garden for the first time:
"For me, it was great to be back. It was a lot of fun playing on the court again," Lin said after the Rockets handed the Knicks their first home loss of the season.
Lin was pleasantly surprised to see fans dressed in his Knicks jersey in the Garden crowd. He was also thankful for the ovation he got during player introductions.
"It was actually a lot better than I thought," he said.
Ian O'Connor, also of ESPNNewYork.com, noted that Lin officially showed the Knicks why he was worth holding onto:
"I'm glad it's over," he would say before joining his family and friends in the stands, "just because, in some ways, I wanted closure."
Jeremy Lin got what he wanted Monday night when he left the Garden with plenty more than a 2-0 record against the Knicks.
He left the place with a reminder that Linsanity didn't happen by accident.
We should let O'Connor's final thoughts serve as a reminder to us all, though, not just Lin. Even if just for one night, this was an indication that Linsanity didn't happy by chance, that it was no accident.
It was, however, the mark of a player who isn't merely a fluke, who still has potential.
And who is still worth believing in regardless of which team he suits up for.