NEW YORK -- Jeremy Lin walked into Madison Square Garden on Monday night feeling out of place, unsure of himself. In the redesigned hallways of the arena that he turned into his own playground for that magical two-week stretch last season, Lin didn't know his way around anymore. Couldn't find the locker room, much less the walkway to the court where Linsanity was born.
"A little weird," Lin said. "It kind of reminded me of my rookie year, to be honest, when I came here."
By the end of the night, Lin was walking with a purpose -- like a man who knew exactly where he was going. He was marching back to the Garden court, where for one night, he had recaptured some of that mastery -- the command of the game and the moment -- that launched his NBA career.
"Seems like yesterday," Lin said in a reflective moment on his way back out to the floor where he had just led the Rockets to a 109-96 victory against the Knicks.
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Until now, when Lin returned to the Garden with 22 points, eight assists and that old flair and aggression going to the basket, those days had seemed so painfully long ago. Back in July, Lin had chosen to sign a three-year, $25 million offer sheet with the Rockets, and the Knicks stunned everyone -- even the Rockets -- by not matching it. Just like that, something so thrilling and joyful was over. But Lin's forever task of trying to validate that contract and replicate the brilliant play that delivered it, was only beginning.
"The easy part for me is just to make sure that I don't try to live up to that," Lin said. "And as long as I do that, I'm not really worried too much about anything else. Our team, we have our expectations and we have our roles and things like that. I just need to stay focused and have tunnel vision when it comes to that. I don't think anyone from the Rockets organization is asking me to recreate anything, and I'm not, either."
Soon after uttering those words, Lin went out and did it anyway. He had vowed to play free and have fun again, to really enjoy this moment -- and he did. And maybe this marks the end of the pursuit of an impossible standard for him, the end of chasing the myth of Linsanity and the beginning of something else.
"I hope this is the start of a good run for him," said his coach, Kevin McHale. "Maybe he felt comfortable here at Madison Square Garden, I don't know."
The last time Lin came out of nowhere and stepped onto the Garden court, it was the beginning of something marvelous -- a phenomenon that grabbed basketball hearts and minds across the globe. This time, the goals were less ambitious and easier to define: get the Rockets to .500, end a seven-game road losing streak and beat the only team in the NBA that was unbeaten at home.
Lin and backcourt mate James Harden, who've struggled to blend their playmaking skills, did all three against a Knicks team that was without Carmelo Anthony -- and also without Amar'e Stoudemire, who will begin practicing Tuesday with the Knicks' D-League team as he prepares to return from knee surgery. But it was Anthony who had dismissively referred to the structure of Lin's offer sheet from the Rockets as "ridiculous," and Anthony who was stung by the perception that his return from injury after Lin had saved the Knicks' season last spring ultimately would torpedo them.
Ten months later, the Knicks (18-6) are atop the Eastern Conference and Anthony -- out Monday night with a sprained ankle -- is playing like a worthy MVP candidate. Lin's replacement, Raymond Felton, is averaging more points and assists than Lin did last season. Jason Kidd has added the kind of experience and calmness that no 24-year-old point guard ever could.
And Lin? Now that this return to the Garden is over, he no longer has to try to live up to the unreachable standard he set nearly a year ago when he came off the bench on Feb. 4 against the Nets and changed everything.
"It was the time of my life," Lin said. "Just to be able to play basketball and win games and do it in the fashion we did. It was so much fun and energy and buzz; definitely something I'll remember forever."
But now, something he would do well to forget.
As Lin sat in a closet -- yes, a closet, where NBA TV has its arena link setup at the Garden -- the man who gave him that $25 million contract, Daryl Morey, stood outside the visiting locker room and reflected on what turned the tide in his pursuit of the point guard who had taken New York by storm. Morey had made an offer, and all along it seemed the Knicks would match -- up to a billion dollars, the story went. Coach Mike Woodson, at one point, went public with the team's intentions.
Morey revised the offer sheet to take advantage of a provision in the rules that would have Lin's salary average out to about $8 million per season on the Rockets' books, but hit the Knicks' books at $15 million in the third year. It was the same tactic that had worked in luring Omer Asik from the Bulls in restricted free agency, but Morey feared it wouldn't be enough to get the Knicks to flinch on Lin.
"To me, the moment was when they said they weren't going to match," Morey said. "I thought they were going to match all the way to the end. Because at that point, it was just money. I mean, it was a lot of money, but it was just money. And I thought they would match it."
The Knicks had added Felton, who had forgotten how to play since being shipped from New York to Denver in the Anthony trade and was even worse in Portland. That was the moment, Lin said, when he knew his time in New York was over.
"Going into the summer, I thought I'd be coming back to New York," Lin said. "But everything happens for a reason, and there's no hard feelings either way. And right now, I'm in a different place in my life and a different chapter, different city, different team."
It took only an encore performance at the Garden, one more time with fans wearing his No. 17 Knicks jerseys, to make things right again. It was only the third time in 24 games since leaving the Knicks that Lin scored 20 or more points. And with Harden scoring 28, the Rockets' backcourt combined for 50 points in a rare spasm of validation that their playmaking and ball-dominance can mesh.
"As was weirdly, heavily reported today, they haven't gotten that total chemistry down yet," Morey said. "Tonight, I think you saw how much pressure they can put on a defense. That's definitely something we had hoped to see a lot of this year."
What Lin saw Monday night was a building he barely recognized when he walked in, but an environment that seemed like home once he stepped onto the floor. It wasn't Linsanity, because there will never be another Linsanity. But Morey believes there can be more nights like this, which would be fine.
"I know everyone talks about it being a short period, but it was long enough where you can't fluke it," Morey said. "His ability to attack the basket, because his first step is really, really top-notch in the league, will always be there. He's going to learn how to use that better and better. Your shot is the thing that improves the most during your career. Look at Jason Kidd. He's a knock-down shooter now. He's 40; let's hope it doesn't take that long. But he was a knock-down shooter in his 30s.
"I see a very high ceiling," Morey said. "How high? I don't know. He played honestly like an All-Star last year, so he's shown he can do that. What are his odds of doing that? I don't know. But it's nice to have a guy who's played many, many times on that high of a level."
Having taken another turn in a familiar interview room, on his way out of the Garden now as though turning the corner on a pick-and-roll, Lin talked about how much fun the night had been. He claimed not to have noticed the old No. 17 Knicks jerseys in the crowd -- which were everywhere in the city not even a year ago -- until someone pointed them out to him.
"That was pretty cool," he said. "Any time you have a stretch like that, you'll remember it forever."
And now this night had put an end to it, finally, and everyone can move on. Lin should, too -- with the kind of rushed, determined gait that he displayed through the winding hallways of the Garden, back out to the court he knows so well.