The Houston Rockets deployed the perfect strategy to throw Jeremy Lin off his game. The organization treated him with respect and class in his return game.
Talk about a change up.
Benched without cause, disrespected by his own coach at every opportunity and very publicly mocked in the end (see those images of Carmelo Anthony in Lin's uniform number splashed all over the Toyota Center), Lin's tenure in Houston was marked by slights at nearly every turn. But he hardly could have been treated better in his first game back as a Los Angeles Laker.
The Rockets played a video tribute to Lin on their much-prized giant scoreboard in the middle of the first quarter Wednesday night, finally recognizing the impact he had on their team. Earlier, James Harden went out of his way to call Lin "a warrior." The notion that there was some big conflict between Harden and Lin was long overblown, but the Rockets star acknowledging that Lin faces near constant criticism nevertheless means something.
The fans in Toyota Center cheering loud for Lin means even more. The Lin Only Haters always stood out as an angry, vocal minority populated by plenty of bigots, but their actual numbers have never come close to matching their message board bite.
On Twitter, the Lin video tribute is derided and mocked. In the actual arena, it's cheered.
Harden just doesn't have enough support. It turns out he and the Rockets really miss the warrior now playing in purple and gold.
Yes, there is still love for Jeremy Lin in Houston. So how does Lin respond to it? He struggles through a three-point, four-assist, five-turnover night, often seeming divorced from the action.
In the end, it doesn't even matter as Lin's 2-9 Lakers still beat the 9-2 Rockets 98-92 with a surprisingly dominant closing kick. It's a result that says much more about the problems haunting the Rockets than any great strides made by the Lakers.
But it's also the kind of the game the Rockets used to win when they had Jeremy Lin on their roster. In fact, it's exactly the kind of shorthanded situation, one in which other starters were out and coach Kevin McHale would have no choice but to play him heavy minutes, that Lin excelled at with Houston.
Now, despite the overblown praise heaped on the Rockets during their 9-1 start (as if anything in the NBA even remotely comes into focus before Christmas), Houston's woefully short of such saviors. When Dwight Howard finds himself sidelined with knee trouble the day after the story breaks that he's accused (but not charged yet) of abusing his kid under the guise of discipline in much of the same way Adrian Peterson was in a case that's cost Peterson his entire season, when third-year power forward Terrence Jones is having trouble staying healthy, these reconstructed Rockets are extremely limited.
Greek forward Kostas Papanikolaou is endlessly intriguing, even more so after this 19-point night, but Trevor Ariza is a third wheel in every sense. Unlike Lin or Chandler Parsons who possess the ability to raise their games to the second star or even occasional lead role when their team needs it, Ariza gets worse when one of the stars he must play off of is out.
Hence, his 4-for-13 shooting clip against the Lakers when Howard isn't there to draw double teams and free him for open shots.
And Patrick Beverley, given his own chance to show he can help lift a team, scores 15 points, but shoots 5-for-13, gets just two assists as your starting point and records a woeful minus 15 plus-minus rating. The only Rocket with a worse rating is the completely lost Donatas Motiejunas at minus 17. For the record, Lin produces a plus five even in his uber struggle night.
Don't Blame James Harden
Many will attempt to heap the blame on Harden for this loss to an inferior team, seizing on his late turnover in the face of Wesley Johnson's double team. Harden himself, who's made such huge strides in the talking like a good teammate department that it almost sounds like he went to Bill O'Brien school, tries to shoulder the burden. He calls himself out for "silly turnovers."
Maybe the scoreboard video — and the moment with the real Houston fans — will give Jeremy Lin a little closure.
But Harden just doesn't have enough support. It turns out he and the Rockets really miss the warrior now playing in purple and gold. You know, the guy capable of messing around and getting a triple double off the bench.
For his part, Lin tweets his thanks to the Houston Rockets for the "classy video" after the game and jets off again into his Lakers future. Maybe Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is simply fighting against the mounting criticism (criticism that free agents are well aware of) that Houston's NBA team treats players as nothing but disposable commodities with a shrewd, calculated move. Maybe he really does regret how things ended with Lin.
It doesn't really matter. It's a nice video — and a better gesture — either way. It's certainly more than Lin could have expected.
Lin's disappointing struggle against his old team, coming on the heels of that 15-point, 10-assist mini breakout in Atlanta, isn't likely to mean much in the big picture. These comeback games are often challenging for good players. Just check out James Harden's stats in his Oklahoma City returns.
And maybe the scoreboard video — and the moment with the real Houston fans — will give Jeremy Lin a little closure.
It's a heck of a Welcome Back, much nicer than anything that came while Lin was actually here.