We are six days away from the return of Jeremy Lin to Madison Square Garden and all that entails, and the extremists on both sides are bringing out their worst, with the Lin-swooners grousing that the Knicks are a dysfunctional franchise in a current hot streak that will still struggle when their elderly players all grow more elderly together (and thus should have kept one of their few young players), and the Lin-skeptics pointing out Lin's early-season struggles and, oh yeah, that the Knicks are 15–5 and look better than they have at any point in nearly two decades. We freely admit that we still think letting Lin go was a mistake, but it's tough to argue that the latter voices aren't on firmer logical ground than the former ones at this point; results are results, and the Knicks are terrific right now, and Lin isn't. Last night, though, we got a glimpse again of that Linsanity lunacy that got everyone so charged up in the first place. It's still pretty fun.
Lin had his best game as a Rocket last night, scoring 38 points and dishing out seven assists in a thrilling overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs 134–126. It's a shame the overtime period was so uneventful, because the rest of the game was so entertaining, and not just from Lin; Tony Parker actually notched a triple-double himself. But this was the night that Lin came back; these highlights will look awfully familiar to Knicks fans.
It's worth noting that Lin's year hasn't been as terrible as his detractors would like to claim it is. He's averaging 11.4 points and 6.1 assists a game, and his turnovers are way down from last year. But his field goal percentage is way down, too, and at certain points at ends of games, he has been replaced by Toney Douglas, which is sort of crazy to contemplate.
So, what was different last night? This will look familiar to Knicks fans, too: The superstar was out. James Harden missed last night's game, so Lin took it over. But Harden will be back soon, and Harden is really good. Ric Bucher, a smart basketball chap, expounded on the Lin dichotomy.
It simply proves that the show Jeremy put on for New York was no mirage — he simply needs to be the main man with complementary players around him. I mentioned that analytics indicate the [Lin and Harden] are far more efficient when they're on the floor without the other this season, but the reason is psychological, from what I'm told: Lin is not wired to be a catch-and-shoot, play-off-another-dominant-player type. It doesn't whet his competitive fire quite the same way. Or at least it never has. He was in that role in Golden State, Houston the first time and early on in New York and it's why he never got any run. Making it worse, he couldn't have known the Rockets were going to land Harden, so he had no time to work on his off-the-ball shooting game over the summer even if he had the desire to develop one. It's an interesting dilemma the Rockets face and I don't see more time together providing a solution.
This seems to make surface sense and has the side benefit of tying the Lin story back with Carmelo Anthony's; not changing his game to fit his teammates is what Carmelo was always accused of, particularly in regard to Lin. But Carmelo has definitely done that this year; the Knicks are 15–5, and he's playing like an MVP. Now it's Lin, ironically, whose game's creativity is being stifled.
But this explanation seems too facile (though the off-the-ball shooting thing makes a lot of sense). First off, it ignores that Lin and Harden's work together the first week of the season was the talk of the league; it's only as the season has gone along that it's hit some speed bumps ... perfectly natural when you're working with young players. But the main thing, and why this issue has always been so frustrating to discuss rationally, is that Lin has already proven he can play with a superstar: Carmelo. Everyone conveniently forgets that Lin and Carmelo worked together just fine after Mike Woodson took over from Mike D'Antoni. There were rough patches, but by the time the Knicks got on a win streak, Lin was playing an excellent point guard, creating for himself and Carmelo, the two meshing quite well. Then Lin got hurt, though, and everyone forgot about that; they just remembered that Linsanity ended when Carmelo came back. Lin can do that again. It just takes time. We're not even a quarter through the season.
Fact is, Lin leaving New York was probably the best thing for him in the long term — and the Knicks in the short term. But no one ever cares about the long term, not when there's a season going. And nor should they. The Knicks are 15–5, the Rockets are 9–11, and the Knicks are probably gonna knock them around next Monday. But these stories all have a long, long way to go. One can enjoy the current and still be aware the future exists, you know.