Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin defended by New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler. Photo: Reuters
The sense of momentum and excitement that characterized the thrilling rise of Jeremy Lin was evident again in Madison Square Garden on Monday night, but this time he was wearing Houston Rockets red. Lin, an undrafted point guard, came up with a dynamic performance in his new team's 109-96 victory over the New York Knicks. His play was in contrast to that of Raymond Felton, who not only replaced Lin in New York, but also seemed to view Lin's return as a personal challenge, and struggled as a result.
Lin departed the Garden much as he did five months ago, when the Rockets signed him to a three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet that the Knicks chose not to match. Despite some strong performances, he is still a young guard trying to find his place in the NBA.
When the Rockets acquired Lin, there was a sense that Houston's barren roster would accord him the freedom to play the way he did when he was at his best in New York. He thrives with a live dribble and plenty of license. So does Houston's best player, James Harden, whom the Rockets traded for just days before the start of the regular season. Alongside Harden, Lin's jump shot has abandoned him, muting his effectiveness opposite a star guard who draws so much attention from the defense.
The dynamic between Lin and Harden differs from Lin's situation in New York, where Carmelo Anthony craved an offense different from the spread pick-and-roll attack that so suited Lin. Instead, the Rockets have gone with the kind of high-paced attack replete with driving opportunities and high pick-and-rolls that Lin prefers.
Yet, Lin's production has been disappointing: His points and assists per 36 minutes are down. Perhaps it would be wiser to separate him from Harden and give him control of the offense as a super substitute with Houston's second unit. When he plays without Harden, his scoring and assist averages — even his shooting percentages — are nearly identical to those of his New York days. When Harden sat out last week, Lin scored 38 points against the mighty San Antonio Spurs. He was back to his old self — diving all over the floor and slicing through the defense on daring dribble drives.
In New York, Felton has been a snug fit. He does not shine as brightly as Lin did last season, but the Knicks have been outrageously productive with him at the helm. (An underrated element of Lin's success last season was the improvement of the defense, not the offense.) Felton's two most important jobs are feeding Anthony and making the right read out of pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler. He has gotten into trouble this season only when he has tried to do it all himself — same as Lin.
On Monday night, without Anthony to steady the offense, Felton could not muster another sizzling shooting night to match his barrage of buckets in the Knicks' recent road victory over the Miami Heat. The Rockets offered Felton jump shots and worked hard to seal off obvious driving angles, and he failed to kick-start the offense, going 7 for 18 from the floor with four assists (Lin had eight).
Aside from J.R. Smith's run of five field goals in six minutes of the first quarter and a slew of unexpected buckets from Chris Copeland, the Knicks' offense was a turnover-riddled mess against Houston's defense, which is ranked 20th in the league.
Monday night's performance aside, the reason Felton fits so well in New York is that the Knicks are a far different team than they were when Lin left. The offensive philosophy is more coherent and dynamic. Jason Kidd's shooting and passing are a significant step up from the No. 2 guards who partnered with Lin last season. And, of course, Anthony has never been better. He is playing with more conviction and maturity than he did last season. Context always counts in the NBA. Felton is shooting more, and less accurately, than Lin did last season. But the Knicks' offense as a whole is functioning wonderfully, and he is passing well enough to keep everyone happy. If he fits better than Lin, it is because he has been knocking down 3-pointers at a high rate, a crucial skill on this team. He is a low-mistakes point guard — his turnover rate is far lower than Lin's was last season — and he makes room for Anthony to do his thing.
Lin is still working out the kinks in Houston, where his partnership with Harden suggests that he be a bit more like Felton: protect the ball, make open shots and direct the offense. To do so, Lin will, among other things, need to fix the hitch in his jumper that leads to some of the worst misses fans will see in the NBA (like the open 3-pointer he air-balled on Monday).
At 24, Lin is not a known entity, unlike Felton, who is in his eighth season. Both point guards went to new teams over the summer, but only one was brought in with the roster largely formed. Felton found a home and made himself comfortable. Lin and the Rockets are building as they go. If Lin plans to be a starter over the long term in Houston, he will need to make some alterations.
- New York Times news service