The best game on Monday's six-game NBA slate looks to be the 8 p.m. ET contest between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — not only are they the teams with the two best records in the NBA, but their first game this season was decided on a thrilling game-winner by Tony Parker. Still, though, the matchup likely to draw the most national attention will take place at Madison Square Garden, where the Eastern Conference-leading New York Knicks will welcome the Houston Rockets and their point guard, whom Knicks fans might remember, for a 7:30 p.m. ET tip that will be broadcast on NBA TV.
This isn't the Knicks' first matchup with Jeremy Lin since he joined the Rockets in restricted free agency this summer amid Jim Dolan's claims of betrayal and Lin's assertion that he would've rather stayed in Manhattan. That came the night after Thanksgiving, and with Knicks point guard Raymond Felton grumbling about being compared to the man he replaced, Houston handed the Knicks their worst loss of the season.
It is, however, Lin's first trip back to the building where he became, against all odds, an international phenomenon the likes of which the NBA had never seen. And since leaving the World's Most Famous Arena, the 24-year-old point guard has largely struggled to find the form that made him a household name.
Throughout the first quarter of the season, Lin has scuffled as he works to fit into a backcourt alongside preseason acquisition/primary facilitator James Harden and become more of a table-setter for the young Rockets, who sit on the fringes of the West's playoff picture at 11-12. He's having a tough time and he knows it; Lin spoke plainly of his troubles with Marc Berman of the New York Post:
Asked to assess his season, Lin said: "Terrible. I think I'm not doing close to what I'm capable of doing and it's a matter of figuring out how to get myself to play more like myself within the system with the change of scenery. I'll be my harshest critic but I'll go ahead and say it: I'm doing terrible."
Lin's comments came after Houston's Sunday loss to the 6-19 Toronto Raptors, a game in which Lin struggled (seven points on 3-for-9 shooting, three turnovers and two assists in nearly 33 minutes) against the defense of Jose Calderon, who's not exactly known as a stopper. He didn't add much on the other end, either, as Calderon scored 18 points, dished 14 assists and notched his second triple-double of the season (and of his career).
In that context, it's easy to understand why Lin might've been especially willing to rag on himself. (And, as The National Post's Eric Koreen wrote after Sunday's loss, it's also probably lucky for Lin that this stretch of struggles came with him wearing Rockets red rather than 'Bocker blue, because the New York fans and media would've feasted on his failures.) That said, though, Lin's Sunday assessment sounds a lot like what he said about his play before that November matchup at the Toyota Center. There's a reason for that — his production really hasn't changed much.
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Heading into that game, Lin was averaging 10 points, 6.3 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.8 turnovers and 1.9 steals per game, making just one-third of his field goal attempts and 23 percent of his 3-point tries. Since that game, the shooting percentages have ticked up — 46.3 percent from the floor, 43.5 percent from beyond the arc — but the 11.6 points, 5.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 2.4 turnovers and 1.7 steals all hang right around the same neighborhood. And if you take away Lin's nostalgia-inducing performance against the Spurs one week ago, he's been downright pedestrian in the nine games since the Knicks win — 8.7 points, 5.7 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 2.4 turnovers, 1.6 steals in just under 30 minutes a night.
There are, of course, reasons for this, and the biggest one is the shift in Lin's offensive responsibility following the import of Harden in a blockbuster eve-of-the-season trade with the Thunder.
As he showed during his years in Oklahoma City, Harden is one of the game's premier scorers and creators in the pick-and-roll — he's crazy good at coming off a screen, reading how opponents are attacking the initial action, probing with his dribble to get into the heart of the defense and either forcing a collapse that will leave a teammate open (and finding him) or getting to the rim for an attempt of his own. The numbers back this up; this season, Harden ranks second in the NBA in points produced per possession used as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, and the Rockets score nearly half the time Harden controls things as the orchestrator in the screen game, according to game-charting data provided by Synergy Sports Technology. Putting the ball in his hands in the pick-and-roll game is a good idea for the Rockets.
The problem is, that's what Lin is best at doing, too. While he was setting Knicks fans hearts ablaze last year, he acted as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll possessions 42.8 percent of the time for New York, and while he wasn't nearly as effective as Harden — 0.8 points per possession, with the team scoring just under 39 percent of the time — he was more effective doing that than anything else. Now, with Harden using the largest amount of the Rockets' possessions in pick-and-rolls or isolations, Lin's opportunities to orchestrate off screens have dwindled — he's finishing 29.2 percent of possessions as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, down nearly a third from last year, and doing so less effectively (0.76 PPP, scoring 36 percent of the time).
The decline in pick-and-roll opportunities for Lin dovetails with a sharp increase in his attempts as a spot-up shooter — 27.2 percent of Lin's offensive plays this year have been spot-ups, up from just 13.3 percent last year. That makes sense — if you're putting Harden on the ball, whoever's playing alongside him has to play off it, and when Harden's game is so heavily predicated on drive-and-kick, that backcourt partner's going to see a lot of catch-and-shoot opportunities. But at this stage in his development, Lin's just not a great shooter; he's making just 30 percent of his tries from between 10 and 15 feet out, 25 percent of his shots from between 16 and 23 feet, and 31.5 percent of his 3-point tries, according to Hoopdata's shot-location stats.
Another big contributing factor in the drop-off in Lin's scoring? He's all but fallen off a cliff in terms of creating off isolation possessions, where he was quite good last year (1.02 PPP, scoring 48.4 percent of the time) and has been dismal this year (0.26 PPP, scoring 12.9 percent of the time). The rub there: Fewer trips to the line. Because Lin's not a great jump-shooter, he often uses his quick first step and dribble to drive defenders toward the basket, and with the Knicks, a lot of those drives resulted in fouls and free throws; Lin's free-throw rate was elite among guards last year. This year, they're not — he's managing less than one free-throw attempt per four field-goal attempts, a rate that barely cracks the top 60 among guards.
Lin's best performance of the year came against the Spurs last Monday — a career-high-tying 38 points, seven assists against just two turnovers in 42 minutes, a stellar 1.31 points produced per possession, 12 free-throw attempts (all made), plenty of control in the pick-and-roll game — in a game that Harden missed due to injury, and that fact hasn't escaped fans' notice. (Neither has the fact that the numbers say both Lin and Harden have played better when the other has been on the bench, as Rob Mahoney noted at SI.com's The Point Forward.)
This has led some, including ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh, to wonder whether it might make more sense for Houston to bring Lin off the bench as the primary shot-creator for the second unit. It has also led others, including Michael Pina of Rockets blog Red94, to wonder if the Rockets would be better served trying to trade Lin in exchange for pieces that might function better alongside Harden in the ongoing Houston rebuild than attempting to jam a square peg into a round hole. Either solution would indicate that we've come quite a long way from that heady early-season "best backcourt in the NBA" chatter. (They'd both be awful hasty, too, considering we're all of 23 games into the Harden/Lin experiment; it's also worth remembering we might not have the definitive read on what Lin himself is at age 24 after 87 NBA games.)
Questions over how Harden and Lin fit together and whether that tandem will give the Rockets the best chance to become a title contender will likely stick around no matter how Lin performs at the Garden on Monday. Still, Rockets fans wouldn't mind seeing a return to the fever, the game-winners, the play that sold countless issues of Sports Illustrated and made Lin one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World just 2 1/2 months after he cracked the Knicks' lineup. Knicks fans, quite pleased with their team's dynamite 18-5 start and early-season rise to the NBA elite, probably wouldn't mind thanking Lin for the memories and then watching their couch-surfing old buddy continue to be "terrible" while replacements Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni continue to orchestrate a New York offense that ranks second in the league in offensive efficiency and hardly ever turns the ball over.
And Lin, for his part, sounds like he wouldn't mind just moving past the whole thing.
"I'm definitely ready to get it over with," Lin told reporters, including Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "I think in some sense there will be some closure. This will be the first return back to MSG, and there will never be another first return. We're going to go out and play and have some fun."
Whether or not Monday actually does provide closure for Knicks fans who still hold a place in their heart for the magic of last February, Lin must start writing his next chapter. If the Rockets can't figure out how to make his skills mesh with Harden's, the duo's ending might wind up even more "terrible" than Lin's start.
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