Resurgent Lin Sparks Streaking Rockets
And while the local bandwagon swells with talk of James Harden's latest heroics, the most positive development for the team's title chances might be the long-awaited return to form of their sixth man.
Lin's 26 points off the bench (in 34 minutes played) were enormous in Houston's come-from-behind victory over Portland, including the 3-pointer that put the Rockets ahead for the first time all game, the steal of a Portland inbounds pass to preserve a tie in the final seconds of regulation, and the fadeaway jumper with a minute left in overtime that put them in front to stay.
It was Lin's most points in a game since scoring 34 way back on November 13 in Philadelphia.
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"I'm really happy for him," said Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, whose team continues its gauntlet through NBA contenders with a game at Oklahoma City tonight. "We need Jeremy. I said that all along. Jeremy is the guy that can get fouled and get to the line. "He attacks. He just makes a lot of stuff happen, and when he is rolling, it just gives you more versatility in your lineup to play smaller and you can do different things."
Season started strong. It's easy to forget, but we're only three months removed from when Lin was an integral cog to the Houston machine. He scored 20 or more points four times during the season's first two weeks, and at the end of November, he was shooting 50 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from the three-point line.
In short, the controversial switch the Rockets made in training camp to start Patrick Beverley at point guard and use Lin off the bench as a scoring spark plug seemed at first to be working beautifully.
Injuries launched downward spiral. It all changed around Thanksgiving, though, when a bruised knee sidelined Lin for the next 10 days. Then, a day after his return from the knee injury, a hard screen from Golden State big man Andrew Bogut jarred Lin's back, causing spasms that would sideline Lin until nearly Christmas.
It took Lin a while to regain his rhythm, but by the end of January, things seemed to be picking up. He scored 18 points on consecutive nights in back-to-back wins over rivals San Antonio and Dallas, and then shot 50 percent or better from the field in four of the club's five February games before the All-Star break.
Chandler Parsons has always been one of Jeremy Lin's top advocates.
Post All-Star break slump. But after returning from the break, the back spasms returned and Lin's play suffered. (Rumors that the Rockets were hoping to trade Lin at the deadline, mostly for financial reasons, may not have helped his mental state, either.)
Lin shot below 40 percent from the field in six of the first eight games after the break. Despite seeing his minutes shrink from a season-long average of 29.2 to just 20.4, his turnover average per game somehow still rose from 2.4 to 2.6 in that stretch. It was bad enough in the Miami game that Lin's woes gave berth to a new derogatory term: the "Linover".
To put it mildly, Lin looked lost. But Lin said before last Friday's game vs. Indiana that his back was feeling much better, and he responded with 11 points in 16 minutes on an efficient 4-of-5 shooting performance.
That set the table for Sunday, when Lin finally recaptured the form that made him appear so valuable as a potential Sixth-Man-Of-The-Year candidate earlier in the season.
"Oh, it feels good," Lin said after the game. "It feels so good. Towards the end of the game I would say is when things opened up for me."
"I'm really happy for Jeremy," teammate and friend Chandler Parsons said from his nearby locker at Toyota Center. "He's been struggling a little bit, but we've all believed in him throughout this whole season."
Lin's role as bench leader. These Rockets as currently constructed are championship contenders this season. They have the NBA's best record in 2014 at 23-6. Dwight Howard has recaptured most of his Orlando athleticism in again becoming a dominant big man, while Harden is making MVP-level scoring outbursts seem routine.
But ask the experts about Houston's title chances, and one common question is heard: are they deep enough? Against Miami, the Rockets coughed up big leads early in the second and fourth quarters because the Lin-led Houston bench couldn't hold its weight.
A similar story played out early in the fourth quarter in Los Angeles a week prior, one of only two Houston losses in the past six weeks. The Clippers torched the Rockets in the fourth quarter with a speedy, two-point-guard lineup of Chris Paul and Darren Collison, and Lin's play was so poor that McHale opted not to match up. With Lin slumping, he Rockets instead stuck with their traditional "big" lineup, and Collison repeatedly took advantage of Harden's inability to stay in front of quicker point guards laterally.
Against Portland, however, Lin entered the game midway through the third quarter with the Rockets trailing by 16, and his performance proved vital as the Rockets clawed their way back into the game.
"Jeremy had an amazing game," said Howard. "He picked us up."
On the whole, the bench has undoubtedly underachieved in recent weeks -- even with the healthy return of backup center Omer Asik. But the leader of the group was always expected to be Lin. And now that he's healthy, even the one supposed Houston weakness could be turning into a strength.
"He came up huge and make some big, big plays," Parsons said of Lin. "We need him."
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