HOUSTON — When Jeremy Lin stepped back onto the court at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago, the signs were there. A throng of reporters around his locker, the kind of electrical hum that comes off power lines filling the air.
Linsanity, it was said, had returned, when in fact nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Despite having filled up the hoop with 31 and 34 points in the Rockets’ previous two games, this was not Lin making headlines around the basketball globe with every step, just a guy trying to make shots.
The stats say Lin has been a better shooter this season than last, his field goal percentage is up from 44.1 to 50.6 and his 3-point shooting improved from 33.9 to 39.7.
The eyes say that he is a better player, too. He’s playing with more confidence and a sense of true belonging that’s better than what he had during those surreal 2 1/2 weeks with the Knicks when he (seemingly) had the NBA world in the palm of his hand.
That was a time that was never built to last. These are the days that are determining Lin’s place in the NBA as either a footnote or a foot soldier.
“Jeremy’s played very well, doing the things we’ve asked him to do,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “It’s like I’ve said over and over and like I’ve told Jeremy many times, nobody could ever keep up with that pace of play that he had during those few weeks in New York. It’s just not realistic.
“I always thought there was going to be some leveling off last season when he came to us, but the truth is I was never as disappointed in him as a lot of people on the outside, and maybe Jeremy, were in him. For a guy who was playing what really amounted to his rookie season in the league, I thought he did well and there were things he had to work on.”
The most obvious was Lin’s shot, which had a hitch at the top and rarely looked comfortable as he let the ball fly. He spent the summer breaking the shot down, rebuilding it and learning to repeat it with constant use in workouts with Dwight Howard in Colorado and James Harden in California. Lin doesn’t pause anymore or look to pass the ball when he gets open perimeter shots. In raising his scoring average to 16.3 points per game, Lin has made at least half his attempts 10 times in the Rockets’ first 15 games.
“I’ve seen him shoot the ball all summer,” Howard said. “I know he can shoot the ball. We want him and need him to feel that it’s his place to shoot the ball.”
Lin is doing it while still trying to find his place in the Rockets’ rotation. McHale made the decision to open the season with Pat Beverley as the starting point guard. However, due to injuries to Beverley and Harden, Lin has since started seven games. He played 31 1/2 minutes, scored 14 points and shot 4-for-8 on Monday night as the Rockets came from behind to win at Memphis, but during the comeback Lin was sitting on the bench. As was Howard.
What Lin has improved as much as his shot is his ability to handle change, embrace new roles and ignore all of the outside-the-game distractions.
While the Twitterverse and knee-jerk over-reaction of the online world has tried to stir up a contest or a controversy with Harden and him — it is, you know, supposed to be a team sport — Lin just keeps moving forward. There are still defensive deficiencies, though he is considerably better, and even more attentive there than Harden. There is still the matter of trying to get all of these disparate parts of the Rockets to fit together.
Howard isn’t the explosive low post presence that he used to be back in Orlando either, 1-on-1 tutoring from Hakeem Olajuwon be damned. But there have been the indications that Lin has recovered a bit of the what-do-I-care swagger that was missing from his game last season as he tried to free himself from the weight of Linsanity.
“I’ll never forget that experience and I wouldn’t want to forget any of it,” he said. “There are some negatives in the aftermath that have made some things difficult. But let’s face it, it also opened up a lot of opportunities for me. In the end, I just can’t let it define me.”
Others have done enough of that already, trying to make more of an issue and a stir about his Lin’s shift to a reserve role and his place in the Rockets’ offensive hierarchy. Next season is the $15 million “poison pill” part of his contract the Rockets constructed in his three-year deal that helped sweep him their way. Clever then, indeed. But will Lin be that level of player, able to hold up under the scrutiny that will come again with the big raise?
It’s a question and a problem that can wait. For now, Jeremy Lin is content to take steps.