The San Antonio Spurs’ defense has been an impenetrable wall all season, and through the first 12 minutes of Monday night’s game, those walls appeared to be closing in on the Charlotte Hornets.
After shutting down the Golden State Warriors’ offensive juggernaut just days ago, the Spurs jumped out to a 28-7 lead over the Hornets, strangling all the passing lanes and three-pointers that had been Charlotte’s lifeblood for what appeared to be another in a long line of easy victories.
And then, Jeremy Lin happened.
Those words alone are enough to invoke images of what played out over the final three quarters as Lin engineered perhaps the most improbable comeback of the season. Even several years removed from his breakout season, memories of “Linsanity” are never too far from the public mind.
The pull-up three-pointers. The downhill drives. The ability to find seams in a defense and space through the trees near the rim. All of it imbued with a sort of kinetic energy that’s hard to describe, but easy to get lost in—for fans and opposing defenses alike.
“He was spectacular,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said [per NBA.com]. “We couldn’t stop him all night. He had a great night. He was wonderful.”
Linsanity is still referred to as a phenomenon. For all our advanced stats, video, and projection models, it’s difficult to explain the perfect confluence of events that occurred in New York—perhaps because it was too far of an outlier, or maybe because the folklore of it all is just too fun to.
Basketball is such a fluid game, it’s hard to quantify it all. The hot hand, momentum, clutch, swagger. These things exist on some Ethereal plane that logic has tried to suss out or deny, but by which anyone who has played the game swears by; almost at a religious level. And like God, the evidence is anecdotal, but the miracles are difficult to discount.
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Jeremy Lin is not a great basketball player, but he is able to tap into greatness. More than many, when given the opportunity, Lin is like a lightning rod that pulls those aforementioned intangible qualities out of thin air.
Against the Spurs, Lin scored 29 points on 11-for-18 shooting, hitting all four of his three-pointers to ignite the Hornets. And as is the case when it comes to Lin, it appeared to come from the smallest of sparks. A flurry of Spurs’ turnovers (six) in the second quarter provided a little momentum for the Hornets, and few players in the NBA ride its waves as expertly as Jeremy Lin, who scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting during that time.
“He made some unbelievable shots and got his confidence going,” Tim Duncan said [via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News]. “It changed the game for them.”
Lin can single-handedly change games, but his individual talent isn’t the franchise-altering variety. His game has star-like qualities. He has good size with plus-athleticism and good instincts for breaking down defenses. There’s a fearlessness in how he attacks the game, making him a conduit for big, momentum-shifting plays.
But to access the full breadth of this talent, he needs to consume superstar-level resources on the court, and his overall game falls just short of justifying that.
Lin has good, not elite, athleticism. The same holds true for his shooting. He can get to the middle of the floor out of pick and rolls against most defenses, and has underrated court vision, but doesn’t have full command of an offense the way a Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry would. Defensively, he’s more playmaker than stopper. He can gamble for steals the way Manu Ginobili might, but without the same substance or intuitive calculus that keeps those risks squarely in the positive ledger.
To best utilize Lin is to place him as a number one option—and he’s certainly capable of operating in this role—but there are simply too many better players to entrust with such freedom and responsibility.
In his stints in New York and Houston, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden stood in the way as better offensive fulcrums than Lin. Perhaps with more time, better systems, and a Jeremy Lin who knew how to better operate off the ball, those pairings could have worked. In Los Angeles, Lin’s one viable NBA skill—the ability to operate a quality pick and roll—was lost on Byron Scott, whose lousy coaching tainted Lin’s value to such a degree that the Hornets were able to acquire him for a relative pittance.
It’s proven to be a beautiful match.
Charlotte is a small market with limited resources, incapable of luring superstars in their current environment. Instead, they’ve stumbled upon a successful formula by investing in quality coaching and flawed players with elite qualities. Purely in terms of breaking down a defender, Kemba Walker is as good as anyone in the NBA. Though often injured, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is just short of the Kawhi Leonards and Draymond Greens of the league, defensively. Al Jefferson is an elite post scorer and can command a double team. Those players are among the very best at what they do, but what they do has a very narrow scope.
Building around such players isn’t ideal, but without a franchise player or the ability to attract one, it’s the hand Charlotte has to work with.
They’ve built an infrastructure to accommodate these flawed talents. Nicolas Batum is, perhaps, their most important player. His playmaking, basketball IQ, and defensive versatility from the wing balances Walker and Jefferson’s scoring tendencies and defensive deficiencies. That he is solid in most other facets of the game allows him to defer to more explosive scorers while still impacting the game. They’ve also injected a lot of shooting into the roster—something that smooths over a lot of imperfections.
Lin is perfectly at home in this environment, where better players can fill in the gaps of his game; but with no one so dominant that they’d severely limit his own playmaking opportunities.
He’s averaging 11.7 and 2.9 assists per game, but his impact—like so many of his teammates—goes beyond the simple box score. To his credit, he’s rounded out some of the edges of his game to better function off the ball (which allows the Hornets to pair him with Walker at times). According to NBA.com, Jeremy Lin hits 35.6 percent of his catch and shoot three-point attempts, and 38.8 percent when left wide open. His shot selection has shifted to include more points created by others (the number of three-point shots he was assisted on jumped to 84.1 percent, up from last year’s 58.5 percent according to Basketball-Reference).
Most of this is more acceptable-to-solid than good or great, but the improvements are enough to keep him on the floor without having to completely turn the keys to the offense over to him. Which is important, because while he’s not quite good enough to run a team, he’s impactful enough to carve out some space for him—because you never know when lightning will strike.
Jeremy Lin is a part-time catalyst with the potential for big time yields. And if he’s only capable of such play for brief moments, it’s important to note that few players have a bigger sense of the moment, or capture it so vividly. A lot of words have been spilled to try and explain Linsanity, and the overall numbers suggest a poor return on investment. But not all basketball has to be quantifiable.
The Charlotte Hornets are 40-30, which isn’t a comfortable lock for the playoffs. But most of their struggles are due to injuries, and they’ve been one of the more formidable teams in the NBA since the beginning of February, with a 17-5 record and a top 10 offense and defense. Should they get into a competitive playoff series, they’ll need some chaos to tilt the numbers in their favor—and what better way than from a player who’s been able to distill magic from basketball.
Or, as Jeremy Lin put it Monday night:
“When I’m comfortable and in the zone, it’s usually good for me.”
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