For 12 minutes, Monday's contest seemed like a natural extension of the weekend for the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets. Coming off their impressive Saturday night strangulation of the Golden State Warriors, Gregg Popovich's crew held Charlotte to just seven first-quarter points (San Antonio's stingiest frame of the season) on 3-for-22 shooting, with Kemba Walker struggling while his counterpart Tony Parker soared. And following their Saturday night defeat at the hands of the lottery-bound Denver Nuggets, the Hornets seemed several steps slow, carved up and trapped and in danger of falling off the pace in the race for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
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And then, the Hornets' defense started to lock in, the offensive floodgates opened, and Jeremy Lin — finally — found his flow.
After shooting just 30.6 percent from the floor through the first 10 games of March, Lin went 6-for-10 from the field in the Denver loss, and evidently, that was enough to prime the pump for the kind of offensive explosion that made him a household name four years ago and that he's so often found himself chasing ever since. The 27-year-old reserve guard scored 12 points in the second quarter to help kickstart the Charlotte offense and begin the process of chopping down San Antonio's 23-point lead.
He'd come up with an even better encore, pouring in 15 points in the final frame to complete the comeback and lead the Hornets to an improbable 91-88 win that dealt San Antonio a rare and historic loss:
The Spurs' 23-point lead was their biggest blown lead in a loss in the Tim Duncan era (since 1997-98).
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2016
Spurs up 21 @ end of 1st Qtr: 28-7. They were 22-0 in team history when leading by at least 20 pts after 1st Qtr prior to tonight. @hornets
— Charlotte Hornets PR (@HornetsPR) March 22, 2016
Spurs' streak of never losing after leading by 15+ ends at 72 games. Warriors' streak still going at 109.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 22, 2016
Walker has carried the Hornets offense since the All-Star break, but was unable to get untracked on Monday, finishing with just six points on 2-for-11 shooting. Steve Clifford needed to look elsewhere for offense, and he found it in Lin, who had all facets of his scoring game going.
He calmly rose up to fire catch-and-shoot triples. He attacked off-balance closeouts and showed poise and pace in the pick-and-roll, getting himself all the way to the rim against the Spurs' defense and finishing when he got there. He found the snap-of-the-wrist touch on his floaters, runners and pull-ups in the paint, sending up high-arcing moonballs on multiple occasions that splashed softly through the net.
Confident and decisive, sharp and smooth, an ability to get into the paint that opens everything up for his teammates — it's a version of Lin we've seen before, but that we haven't seen much lately, and after the game, the man himself struggled to explain it.
"You know, it's ... I don't know," Lin told FOX Sports Southeast analyst Dell Curry. "The first one went down. The first 3 went down, and when I'm comfortable, I'm in the zone, it's usually good for me. When I knock down the first one, it's usually helpful, and I just tried to stay aggressive and stay with it."
Most important, he was nails when it counted, going 5-for-7 from the floor, including a perfect 3-for-3 from long distance, in the fourth quarter. Lin outscored San Antonio by himself over the last six minutes, 9-8, knocking down what would wind up being the game-winning pull-up jumper with 48 seconds left and drilling two free throws with 18 seconds left to extend the lead to three points.
"It definitely felt like I was in the zone, and it was a ton of fun," Lin told NBA TV after the game. "For me, I switched my shot up this summer, and this whole season [I've] been struggling with it and it's been an absolute — extremely frustrating at times. But tonight, it kind of broke open for me, man, and it's one of those games where I'm just thankful to God, because honestly, I never expected this to happen."
The Spurs had one last chance to tie it up with 0.4 seconds left, but Charlotte trade-deadline acquisition Courtney Lee — who played a huge role of his own in the comeback, scoring 13 of his 17 points in the third quarter to help the Hornets get within five entering the fourth quarter — came up huge, stepping in front of Kawhi Leonard as he broke to the corner to steal Patty Mills' attempted inbounds pass under the San Antonio basket, finishing the job and sending the Time Warner Cable Arena faithful into hysterics:
After finishing off his 29-point, seven-rebound, two-assist, one-steal outing, Lin got a bit of the old Draymond-and-Steph cool-down effect from running buddy Nicolas Batum:
It's hard to blame the St. Lunatic for his exuberance; Charlotte has now won 16 of its last 20 games to improve to 40-30 on the season, putting them just a half-game back of the Miami Heat-Atlanta Hawks-Boston Celtics troika currently vying for the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference. Right now, the Hornets sit sixth, but all it takes is one or two teams having an off night for them to be right back in position to host a playoff series.
No matter what happens, the Spurs will be opening the postseason at AT&T Center. But even with a stellar record of 59-11, Monday's loss still represents a disappointment and a missed opportunity for San Antonio. Teams this good aren't supposed to lose 23-point leads, but the second unit that has given the Spurs such life throughout the season didn't bring the juice this time — Lin outscored the entire Spurs bench by himself, 29-18 — and San Antonio just couldn't consistently puncture Charlotte's aggressive and attentive defense in the second half, shooting just 15-for-41 from the floor and 2-for-12 from 3-point land after halftime to give the Hornets hope.
The loss to the Hornets, combined with Golden State holding off the young Minnesota Timberwolves on the road on Monday, means that the Spurs just gave back the game in the standings they fought so hard to get on Saturday. San Antonio now sits four games behind the Warriors with 12 games remaining, and while there are still two head-to-head meetings between Golden State and the Spurs before season's end, that feels like too much to expect even for a team this good:
That is a LOT of losses to catch for a team winning 90% of their games. https://t.co/ncOLki6kjA
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 22, 2016
While Monday's outcome could cause Pop to get an early start on the expected late-season downshift in which San Antonio gives its veterans scheduled rest ahead of the postseason push, it could propel the Hornets — who have been arguably the East's most consistent team over the past two months, and who now boast top-10 rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency on the season — from frisky first-round fodder to the ranks of teams with a real shot at making a run at an Eastern Conference finals berth if everything breaks right.
Charlotte doesn't need the "Linsanity" version of Jeremy Lin to get threatening — they'll settle for the "confidently runs the pick-and-roll and works hard to get to the rim" vintage — but man, do they enjoy seeing him when he hops out of the phone booth.
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