HOUSTON — It was Linsanity.
Except that it happened in a half-empty arena while almost everyone in town was watching Monday Night Football.
It was Linsanity.
Except that instead of pouring in 38 points over Kobe Bryant to take down the Lakers, he scored 38 points and kicked away the best chance to win the game with a turnover in the final seconds of regulation.
OK, so it wasn’t quite the Linsanity that turned New York and the basketball world upside down for a couple of weeks last February.
But at least Jeremy Lin finally showed some of the crazy stuff that made him a worldwide phenomenon and got him his $25 million free-agent contract with the Rockets.
For the first time this season, Lin rained down 3-point shots and spun through the lane like a twister ripping off tins roofs. His spark nearly turned into a raging inferno that took down the Spurs.
In addition to those career-high tying 38 points, there was 4-for-5 shooting from downtown, seven assists, two steals and just a light bulb of inspiration that shone out of a 134-126 overtime loss.
The Spurs’ Tony Parker rang up 27 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds for the first triple-double of his career, but even he knew the script.
“If we lose nobody would have cared (about a triple-double),” he said. “They would just be talking about Linsanity.”
This was the player the Rockets hoped they were getting when they signed Lin. That it came nearly one-fourth of the way into the season finally gave them a chance to exhale.
Lin had entered the game shooting just 38.1 percent, rarely looking transcendent, often seeming unsure of how he would ever again squeeze a jumper through the basket. As a result, his drives into the paint were often contested and confused, sometimes painful to watch. But when Lin hit a couple of outside shots early, it was as if the door swung open — physically and mentally — and he was able to cruise to the rim.
“If you’re just driving the ball all the time it’s tough and people can load up on you,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “But if you’re knocking down shots like that, people gotta come out on you and it opens up your drive.”
That it took a night when his starting backcourt partner James Harden was sitting on the bench with a bad ankle could also have been significant. Linsanity, after all, happened in New York when Carmelo Anthony was out of the lineup and the ball was simply put into Lin’s hands. And it ended soon after Anthony returned.
With Harden dominating things and initiating most of the offense in Houston, Lin has been unable to find a spot that feels right to him.
“I think I play the best, just like anybody, when you’re comfortable,” Lin said. “Getting extra shots up and things like that. Things are starting to feel more comfortable. For me it’s trying to be aggressive, but controlled at same time. I’ve learned a lot through a lot of my struggles through the season, but I think through it all I’ve been able to see what’s gonna work, what’s not gonna work and get an idea of that.”
The Rockets need to find a way to make Lin and Harden work as a tandem rather than just two guys wearing the same uniforms.
“There are things we can do on either side of the floor,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “I like the fact that Jeremy can get to the right hand on the left side and James can get to the left hand on the right side. So you can do a lot of both-sided stuff with two guys that can both get to their strong hand when they’re driving. We’ve got to get better in some areas and put in some stuff that can help those guys play together.”
It could have been a repeat of those headline-grabbing, pun-making finishes with the Knicks when Lin had a tie game and the ball in his hands at the end of regulation time. But he waved off a pick by Omer Asik, tried to go it alone, had the ball knocked away by Danny Green and turned it over on a shot-clock violation.
“The biggest one that I kinda pissed away,” he said.
It’s not how Linsanity is supposed to end. But at last, it’s a start.