HOUSTON – Jeremy Lin knows very well the kind of headlines that he’d be waking up to each morning if he were putting up the same numbers in New York.
Less than a month into his first full season away from the Linsanity of last February, Lin is averaging just 10 points per game and shooting only 33.3 percent for the Rockets.
“I’ve only started about 36 or 37 games in three years,” he said. “There are sophomores in the league with a lot more experience than me. So in a lot of ways that takes pressure off. It makes it easier.
“I’m very happy in Houston. It’s really low key. When I walk around, I don’t have to wear a hat or glasses or anything, unless I want to.”
Of course, that stark contrast in lifestyle that he enjoys today would not have been possible without that over-the-top experience of being the Knicks’ starter last February. If Lin didn’t reinvent the game while ringing up 38 points against Kobe Bryant one night, breaking the hearts of the Raptors with a game-winning jumper on Valentine’s night and scoring more points (136) in his first five starts than any player since the NBA merger in 1976-77, he at least gave the fans that jammed into Madison Square Garden a different way of enjoying it.
“It was a whole lot at once,” he said. “It’s overwhelming and at times it feels like it’s going to swallow you up. That’s why I had to eventually kind of shut down in terms of the outside world and just saw my family and my closest friends and that’s it. There was a lot of outside noise I was trying to tune out.”
Now the noise is back, at least for a night. Lin lines up against the Knicks (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) for the first time since they cut him loose by failing to match the three-year, $25-million free agent contract he was offered by the Rockets.
“God has a perfect plan and this is where He wants me to be,” Lin said. “He wants me here. I know that and it’s why I’m so thankful to be here. It’s a different challenge and a different kind of experience from what I went through in New York, but it’s exciting.”
It will be a return to the Big Apple media maw as every dribble, pass and shot will be compared to Raymond Felton, the Knicks’ current point guard. The measurement will be sharpened by the fact that the Knicks sport the NBA’s best record (8-2) and Felton has been solid, averaging 13.4 points and 6.7 assists per game.
However, Lin places no added significance on his New York return and maintains that he sought out this return date when the schedule came out.
“I haven’t looked at the schedule, still haven’t,” he said. “That’s just something that I never do. I look at our first game and then I leave it like that. People text me. I think I play in New York on Dec 17. My friends texted me.
“It’s a different team over there and we’re a different team over here. So it’s gonna be fun getting on the court with some of my friends, but playing against them.
“I’m just gonna play, keep playing. It’s a blessing … It’s a reminder to be thankful for everything I have. I’m gonna go out there on Friday and play my heart out and just try to approach it the same. Play my heart out and be OK with the results whatever they may be, trusting in God.”
But after his flamboyant arrival onto the scene nine months ago, which swept across the league (and an ocean due to his Taiwanese heritage), Lin knows that the intense scrutiny will not leave.
“I think I’ve come to accept and get used to that,” he said. “It’s one of those things, it comes with the territory. Good game, bad game, there’s gonna be a lot of people watching and talking and guessing.
Mike D’Antoni, the ex-Knicks coach who turned him loose in New York, now leads the Lakers.
Carmelo Anthony, who clearly couldn’t co-exist with Lin as the primary ballhandler last season, is now lauded as a gracious team player and forceful leader.
Meanwhile, the youthful 5-7 Rockets — like Lin himself — are still working to carve out their identity in the league.
While the Rockets’ franchise got a boost from the trade that landed it shooting guard James Harden days before the season opener, nobody like felt the move more than Lin. Up to that point, the team had been plastering his image on every billboard around town, setting him up as both the face of the franchise and the target of derision if he could not recreate the “Linsanity.”
But Harden made his Houston debut with eye-popping games, new center Omer Asik moved into his first year as a starter and established himself as double-double producer and second-year forward Chandler Parsons has kept things interesting with his energy. All of which has left Lin something of a shadow in which to grow.
In failing to find his range — which includes an abysmal 22.9 percent from 3-point land — Lin has made half his shots in a game only once this season. He was left on the bench during the overtime period in a loss at Portland due to his inability to check rookie Damian Lillard and benched for the final nine minutes of Wednesday night’s win over Chicago so that backup Toney Douglas could defend the Bulls’ Nate Robinson.
What’s missing from Lin’s game is the flair and the confidence that made him a worldwide phenom last season. He moves around the court unsure and ineffective and seems to be pressing.
“He’s a human being. He probably puts a little more pressure on himself than he needs to,” said Rockets acting coach Kelvin Sampson. “But we support him. I’m not changing the starting lineup. That’s not gonna happen. He’s gonna run out there against New York and one of these games he’s gonna just break through and I’ll have the biggest grin in the world when he does.”
“I feel like in my whole career, it’s never really about getting going,” Lin said. “I felt like these are good shots and for one reason or another, they’re not going in. I still feel they’re good shots for me and I’ve been shooting them my whole career and I’m not going to stop.”
He was wide open for a 3-point shot at the end of overtime that could have taken down the Heat a few nights earlier.
“I was sitting in my office after the game by myself and knock came on my door,” Sampson said. “It was Jeremy. He walked into the office and said, ‘Coach, I want to apologize for missing that shot. I’ll make the next one.’ I gave him a fist bump and he walked out.
“It didn’t surprise me. I know he’s a high-character kid and he cares.”
How might that missed 3-pointer have played in N.Y.?
For now, he’s just trying to deal with a far different kind of Rocket ride.