In an unforeseen turn of events, they climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference standings early this season—above the mighty Heat, above the Celtics, above the Brooklyn Nets. They did it with an old team. They did it without the player who gave them life last season.
But on Monday night, as Jeremy Lin's Houston Rockets handed the Knicks their first home loss of the season, it was impossible to avoid wondering what this team would have been like if Lin were still around.
And to his credit, Lin made certain we were all thinking it. He may not have been perfect up to this point—he may have not been any good at all, at times—but he picked a pretty stellar night to submit one of his biggest performances of the season.
When Lin signed an offer sheet with Houston last summer and New York declined to match it, thereby letting him walk, there were lots of excuses, lots of qualifiers. Some said he hadn't proven himself yet, that a two-month stretch of relatively meaningless games proves nothing. It could have been beginner's luck, it could have been a fluke. Some said his injury history was too troubling. Some said he wasn't worth anything close to the $25 million over three years the Rockets were willing to pay him.
While all the chatter persisted, Lin sat back and listened. Then, on the biggest stage with all of the most important people watching, he stopped the chatter with a 22-point, eight-assist performance as the Rockets took down the Knicks 109-96 on their home court. That, more than anything else, showed the Knicks exactly what they were missing, exactly why he was worthy of the contract he received.
Lin himself couldn't even deny the importance of the game afterward, telling Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "I am glad this is over. This is a little bit of closure."
Of course, Lin has plenty more to prove as he continues to conquer the treacherous waters of the NBA. He hasn't won a championship. He hasn't even carried a team to the playoffs. He hasn't established that he can be a worthwhile, career starting point guard. The Rockets aren't exactly cruising right now, either: They're 12-12, and Lin is averaging 11.3 points and 6.0 assists per game, down from last season.
But Monday's performance was a statement. The Knicks would have loved to see Lin flop, and he refused to give them the satisfaction. Not only did he have one of his best games of the season thus far, but he had it against the best team in the East, on the road, amidst all the pressure surrounding his return.
Some have looked at Lin's progression through the first couple months of this season and used it as evidence that the Knicks made the right call. On Monday, though, Lin said, Not so fast.
Last season, Lin's magic wasn't necessarily in his stat line. It was in the way he energized his team. It was in the way he made a lackluster, middling squad believe in itself and make a decisive charge to the playoffs, in part because of what he could do on the court and in part because he simply made everyone else on the court feel that it was possible.
The fans loved him because he played great for a nice stretch of games, but they loved him even more because he played with heart, and because he made the rest of the team start reflecting that heart.
That's what Lin did with the Rockets on Monday. He took a struggling team and gave it hope. He wasn't a bystander in the win, or an accessory to it. He was the reason for it. That, just as much as anything else, makes him worthwhile.