NEW YORK — Jeremy Lin returned to Madison Square Garden on Monday. New York fans gave him a great ovation when he was introduced and then booed him when he touched the ball. The loudest crowd noise of the night came when he airballed a 3-pointer late in the second quarter.
“It was great to be back and playing on that court again,” Lin said after his Rockets handed the Knicks their first home loss of the season. “I had fun out there. I’m thankful to the fans. A lot of people showed out and supported and wore my old jersey. I am still thankful for the fans and it was a lot better than I had thought.”
The night wasn’t quite as electric as it could have been though, because the Knicks played without Carmelo Anthony (sprained ankle), because the game was essentially over by the end of the third quarter, and because the early-season performances of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd have already softened the blow of losing Lin in July. But while the Knicks are better off without Lin this season, he did help show them where they still have some work to do.
The funny thing about the Linsanity phenomenon that captured New York 10 months ago is that the Knicks’ success over those magical 26 games was more about defense than it was about Lin’s points and assists.
Lin certainly had a marvelous run, averaging 18.5 points and 7.7 dimes over those 26 games, but the Knicks were still just an average offensive team in that stretch. Defensively, however, they were excellent.
Linsanity was about more than just basketball, of course. But it wouldn’t have reached the heights it did if the Knicks weren’t winning games. And they wouldn’t have won games if they weren’t getting stops. Remember those 38 points Lin scored against the Lakers? The Knicks won that game 92-85. Remember that game-winner in Toronto? The final score of that one was 90-87.
Right now, the Knicks are a bad defensive team, one that couldn’t contain Lin or James Harden off the dribble on Monday, allowing 52 points in the paint in a 109-96 loss to the Rockets at Madison Square Garden.
Though the Knicks were clearly missing Anthony, Lin appropriately pointed to another absence as critical.
“They’re not their full team,” Lin said after the game. “They’re missing very key guys. And I think right at the top of the list is Shump. He’s definitely a difference maker.”
Iman Shumpert, the Knicks’ best perimeter defender last season, is still rehabbing from knee surgery. But the Knicks can’t wait for his return to turn things around defensively. They’ve been able to get by thus far — they still lead the Eastern Conference at 18-6 — with a historically potent offense. They’re easily the most improved offensive team in the league this year. But they’ve also taken a big step backward on the other end of the floor. And when the threes aren’t falling, they don’t have a top-five defense to fall back on like they did last season.
It was the Knicks’ improved defense that helped them win six of the seven Lin-led games that Anthony missed last February. And it was the Knicks’ regressed defense that allowed Lin’s Rockets to score 240 points in two meetings over the last month.
It was the Knicks’ defense that allowed Lin to play one of his better games this season on Monday, scoring 22 points and dishing out eight assists. It was the Knicks’ defense that failed to get back in transition, allowing 25 Houston fast-break points, including several after made baskets. And it was the Knicks’ defense that allowed Lin and Harden to comfortably coexist.
“Tonight I think we complemented each other really well,” Lin said. “We took a big step in the right direction in figuring it out.”
The Knicks don’t have to worry about Lin and Harden anymore. But they certainly have to figure some things out themselves. With or without Anthony, their defense has seriously regressed over the last few weeks, allowing over 106 points per 100 possessions over the last 15 games, a rate that would rank as a bottom-five defense this season.
“The defense wasn’t there tonight,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “We have to go back to the drawing board and get some practice time under our belt when we can try to correct it.”
No, the Knicks don’t need Jeremy Lin anymore. But they do need to remember what Linsanity was all about.