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Way back in February, when the GOP was still considering Rick Santorum as a presidential nominee and Dwight Howard was merely disliked rather than widely loathed, New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin went on a multi-game stretch of such improbable greatness that he became one of the most popular players in the NBA. It was called "Linsanity," and it was awesome. Chances are you remember it.
That run earned Lin a lucrative contract with the Houston Rockets (and also caused Knicks fans to question their organization's priorities once again). So far, Lin has not been quite the player the Rockets were hoping for. Through the season's first 19 games, Lin has averaged 9.9 points on 38.1 percent shooting and 6.1 assists in 32.3 minutes, good enough for a sub-average PER of 12.1. Put simply, those are not the numbers of a quality NBA point guard.
On Monday night against the San Antonio Spurs, though, Lin recaptured the magic that made him such an exciting figure last season. With star teammate James Harden sitting out with a sprained right ankle, Lin took over the offense and scored 38 points on 11-of-21 shooting (including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc and 12 of 12 from the line), dished out seven assists, and turned the ball over just twice. The Rockets lost 134-126 in overtime, but those are the numbers of a star. For at least one night, we saw glimpses of Linsanity once again. It was thrilling.
It would be great news for the Rockets if Lin has turned a corner and can play consistently enough to give them a second star-level guard. However, there are reasons to think that this game was an aberration, and not just because it's a single game in a season that's not yet through its first quarter.
Linsanity didn't happen in a vacuum — he only got the opportunity to dominate the Knicks' offense because of a rash of injuries that left them without their typical primary options. Throughout his career — in high school and in college, as well — Lin has done his best when he's been allowed to control the ball as much as possible. He's not a ballhog, exactly, but he's a player who needs offensive freedom to thrive. Only then do we see the full game: the strong decision-making off screens, the ability to hit tough shots with regularity, etc. When he can do all those things, Lin — and his team — does quite well.
Understandably, the Rockets want Lin to be part of a larger team structure, one where Harden, who is similarly strong when he can control the ball for most of a possession, carries most of the offensive burden. The problem for them is that Lin hasn't yet shown an ability to play with the same kind of consistency in a secondary role. (Though, it should be said, he had some good games once Carmelo Anthony returned to the Knicks lineup in March 2012.) It's possible that he's just not the same player when he doesn't dominate the ball.
To be clear, this issue is simply something the Rockets need to figure out, not anything close to a crisis. Lin continues to be an extremely promising player who often displays bits of brilliance, but the fact remains that the Rockets want him to be part of a larger project. If anything, his share of the ball will only decrease as general manager Daryl Morey adds more players and several of the roster's promising youngsters come into their own.
Lin is going to have to learn how to do new things and may need to occupy a role he hasn't yet experienced. (Mike Prada of SB Nation made the compelling suggestion that he may be best suited to playing as a ball-dominating sixth man in the mold of Jamal Crawford.) In many ways, this development will be the defining narrative of his career. We'll probably never experience Linsanity to its fullest again. The goal will be to turn stellar performances like this one into the high end on a spectrum of consistency rather than one available extreme.
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