NEW YORK -- Fifteen seconds is all it took to all but close the door on Linsanity.
That's the ovation a capacity crowd of 19,033 at Madison Square Garden gave to Jeremy Lin on Monday in his much-hyped return to the city whose headlines he dominated for a month-and-a-half last season and against the team he walked away from last July when the Knicks didn't match the Rockets' free-agent contract offer.
Lin and his Rockets went on to beat the Knicks 109-96 and hand New York its first home loss of the season. During a game that was more business than personal, Lin was treated little differently from James Harden or Omer Asik or any of his other Rockets teammates. Lin was simply an opponent to be challenged, a figure of the Knicks' past, not their shiny present. Despite the loss, a sense of normalcy pervaded the arena, one that any relationship broken needs if it is to co-exist in its new future.
Indeed, the future is what Lin's 22-point, eight-assist performance opened for everyone involved.
Suffering through a season he described as "terrible," Lin demonstrated he may finally be finding a comfort level with his backcourt mate, Harden. Both played with a symmetry Rockets general manager Daryl Morey must have dreamed of when dealing for Harden at the end of training camp. The two combined for 50 points (on 18-of-33 shooting), 14 rebounds and 11 assists.
"We complemented each other really well," Lin said. "That's important for us to be aggressive, for us to pick our spots and feed the hot hand. So I think tonight, we took a big step in the right direction in figuring it out. But it's still early and I have a lot to learn in terms of playing with James and likewise."
Lin played aggressively but not out of control. He pushed the tempo when the defense allowed and he spotted up when Harden controlled the ball. When you start the season averaging a modest 10.8 points on 39.5 percent shooting and six assists per game, it's not time to settle old scores; it's time to prove the 35 games that made you a star were not a fluke. And Lin did that, helping direct the Rockets to a 25-10 advantage in fast break points and leading an offense that converted 51.3 percent from the field a day after losing to the Raptors.
After telling reporters beforehand that he wanted to get past this reunion, Lin appeared after the game to be ready to part ways.
"I'm in a very different place now," he said. "I've moved on, they've moved on. We have good memories, but at the same time we're all in a different place now." (Although naming injured guard Iman Shumpert at the "top of the list" of important missing Knicks ahead of Carmelo Anthony -- who sat out with an ankle sprain -- and Amar'e Stoudemire suggests that a little piece of New York attitude has stuck with Lin.)
Perhaps because this Knicks team had already had its own personal reunion with Lin in Houston in a loss after Thanksgiving, or perhaps because coach Mike Woodson has the club believing a title isn't a pipe dream, the Knicks treated Monday with a sense of weariness. Yes, Lin was back, but there are bigger issues to worry about. The days of questions about Lin's return, coupled with the absence of Anthony, seemed to take a toll. New York played with uncharacteristic lethargy, shooting 43.3 percent and turning the ball over 17 times. After a 31-point first quarter, the Knicks scored a combined 29 points in the middle two periods as Houston built an 83-60 lead entering the fourth.
"We didn't play like we've been playing," Woodson said. "They somewhat had their way from a perimeter standpoint. Our perimeter play was sloppy tonight. We made turnovers and didn't get into the paint quick enough on offense."
Much like their former teammate, the Knicks also appeared ready for this miniseries to be over.
For all the words Knicks players and coaches used in publicly proclaiming they wanted Lin back last summer, their indirect statements said they wouldn't necessarily be heartbroken if he left. Anthony said it was up to the Knicks if they wanted to match Houston's "ridiculous" three-year, $25.1 million offer to Lin. J.R. Smith added that Lin's contract would be a potential problem in a locker room filled with veteran players. Reports floated that team owner James Dolan was furious that Lin used the Knicks' stated desire to match any offer sheet to sweeten his deal with a $14.8 million poison pill in the third year of his contract.
Egos bruised, the Knicks chose to go with Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Argentine veteran Pablo Prigioni at point guard. More than performance, the new trio commanded the compliance of Anthony and the rest of the locker room. None carried a reputation that would challenge Anthony as the team's leading star or had enough game to prompt observers to ask how Anthony would fit with them, much as Lin's performance did last season. At 18-6, it's hard to argue with the decision.
"As an organization, we've moved on," Woodson said. "We wanted Jeremy back; I made that public back in the summer when we were going through the recruiting process. But things changed from a business standpoint, and Jeremy decided to take the Houston deal, and he has every right to do that. But we're excited about [our] three guys because they've come in here and put us in this position in terms of our record and ahead in our division. That's no knock against Jeremy; he did what he had to do. And we've done what we had to do and we wish him nothing but the best until he plays the Knicks. And that's it."
Monday also seemed to be it for the Knicks fans who helped make Lin a phenomenon. Cheers before tip-off gradually turned into a regular cacophony of boos any time Lin touched the ball or stepped to the free-throw line. The anger fans felt when the Knicks failed to meet the Houston deal had melted into the vitriol reserved for any player slicing up the Knicks' defense.
Of course, watching the one who got away toil for a .500 team in the Western Conference while the Knicks lead the East makes it easier to move on. And for now the Knicks' decision has not come back to bite them. Thanks in large part to Woodson's schemes, and the respect he commands from a star-heavy roster, New York has gambled away what could have been a big piece of the team's future and not looked bad doing so. After two double-digit losses to Lin's Rockets this season, it's clear to all in New York that Linsanity isn't coming back to its birthplace. But given the prospects of Lin's Knicks compared to that of Felton's and Kidd's, it's unlikely any fans would trade.