Knicks guard J.R. Smith drives past Houston Rockets forward Omri...

Knicks guard J.R. Smith drives past Houston Rockets forward Omri Casspi in an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. (Nov. 14, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Jeremy Lin returned last night to the building that he made buzz and teem with excitement and anticipation for about six weeks in 2012.

Duplicating that has been difficult, but the Knicks came close last season. The Knicks were a dominant team at home and had their fans believing they could make a deep championship run.

One of the Knicks' 10 regular-season losses at the Garden last year came against Lin and the Rockets, and they were hoping to avoid that happening again.

Lin, who the Knicks let walk after opting not to match Houston's three-year, $25.1-million deal, is not the Rockets' marquee player. Dwight Howard and James Harden are their stars. But Lin came in on quite a run. He scored 65 points in the last two games while shooting 20-for-36 overall, including 12-of-21 from three.

"He's a better player," 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. That's what you expect when you play in this league. You expect to get better."

Woodson wants to see the Knicks get better.

They showed some mettle by winning in Atlanta Wednesday. It was a strong bounce-back victory after their worst home performance under Woodson Sunday, a 31-point loss to the Spurs.

Home hasn't been as warm and friendly to the Knicks as last year. They dropped their last three at the Garden and were booed in each of those games because of a lack of effort, continuity and chemistry. The Knicks didn't lose their third game at the Garden last season until Jan. 1. "We've got to go out and figure out how to win on our home court, which is funny to say," J.R. Smith said.

It's not so much funny as it is disconcerting, particularly for a team that thought it would contend this season.

Woodson has stressed the importance of establishing a home court advantage and under his watch the Knicks have done that -- until this season.

They won their first game against the Bucks, but squandered a 25-point lead and narrowly won. In their last three home games, the Knicks were down double-digits in the first half and in two of them they faced deficits of at least 23 points before halftime.

It's still very early in the season, but if the Knicks are going to come close to having the type of season they had last year they're going to have to play better at home, and defend better.

Without Tyson Chandler, the Knicks have had little protection inside. That didn't bode well for them Thursday night with Howard in the middle and Lin driving to the basket.

The Knicks have been outscored in points in the paint in all but one of their games. Their least effective game came in Atlanta, when they were beaten 56-28 inside.

"I'm just trying to get whoever's on the floor understanding their roles from a defensive standpoint," Woodson said. "Right now we're just playing in spurts defensively. I'm just trying to find some closeness where we can get guys on the same page from a defensive standpoint in terms of knowing their roles, rotations, pick-and-roll defense because it all goes hand in hand."

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