Jeremy Lin enjoying himself as he helps Rockets

Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin looks on against

Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin looks on against the Knicks in an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. (Nov. 14, 2013) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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For Jeremy Lin, returning to Madison Square Garden for the second time as an opponent "was a lot more mellow." And he enjoyed that aspect of it very much.

Because if there's anything Lin knows best, it's hoopla.

The intense craze that accompanied his out-of-nowhere breakout performance with the Knicks two seasons ago was so great, it had its own name: Linsanity. But that's in the past.

Lin returned to New York Thursday night a different player than when he left, and he believes for the better. Now a reserve, he showed off a more well-rounded game, was active defensively and perhaps most importantly played with a clear head free of the giant expectations from a year ago.

Calling the Garden atmosphere "incredible," Lin scored 21 points with five rebounds, three assists and a steal in the Rockets' 109-106 win.

"I'm having fun out there," Lin said, and Thursday night was no different, despite his shooting woes. Coming off back-to-back games of 30-plus points, Lin struggled with his three-point shot, shooting just 1-for-6 from downtown.

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Yet he managed to make his biggest impact when the game was in the balance, scoring nine points on 4-for-6 shooting -- including his only three pointer -- in the fourth quarter. He was the only Rocket to be on the court for the entire final quarter.

"I think he's really content with who he is as a player now," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "I think last year there was just so much. He wasn't really healthy. His knee was bothering him. There were so many expectations to be everything. That's just too hard."

The preseason move by McHale to use Lin as a reserve has paid immediate dividends, going a long way in taking the pressure off Lin from trying to live up to the $25 million, three-year contract the Rockets used to pry him from the Knicks.

It also helps that Lin is in better physical shape than a year ago. "He's looked faster, looked in better shape, his knee is back healthy," McHale said.

Lin started all 82 games last season, averaging 13.4 points and 6.1 assists. This season he's averaging 18.1 points and is shooting 54 percent from the field.

"Sure, he's advanced, he's a better player," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. "He had his ups and downs when he first went into Houston but he's starting to come into his own now as a player."

Lin said he enjoyed seeing his former teammates and he appreciated cheers from the fans when he entered midway through the first quarter.

But when he went to the free-throw line a minute later, he was booed, a reminder that he's an opponent and Linsanity was a long time ago.

"This was fun," he said. "I got to see familiar faces."

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