MILWAUKEE – Before Linsanity – those heady few months in the winter of 2012 that turned Jeremy Lin into a near-household name and helped the NBA heal from the rancorous lockout that delayed its season – there was uncertainty.
And after it, too.
About a week before his basketball world blew up (mostly) in a good way, Lin was praying just to keep his job. At a pregame chapel session in Miami on Jan. 27 that season attended by some players from both teams, Lin asked: “If you could say a prayer for me that I don’t get cut.” Fellows such as Landry Fields and Jerome Jordan, Lin’s Knicks teammates, and Heat forward Udonis Haslem heard a fringe guy sweating out the deadline date that year for contracts to be guaranteed.
Then Lin scored 25, 28, 23 and 38 points from Feb. 4 right through the Feb. 10 deadline, then kept going. In 11 games, the undrafted Harvard guy averaged 23.9 points and 9.2 assists while shooting 50 percent and helping New York win seven in a row and nine of 11.
Life hasn’t been the same since: a frenzied “15 minutes” of fame as a pop culture icon, massive All-Star vote totals inspired at least in part by Lin’s Asian-American heritage and a three-year, $25 million contract from Houston in free agency.
But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been uncertainty.
In a season and a half with the Rockets, Lin has established himself as a solid NBA rotation player but not that meteor streaking across the middle of 2011-12. He started 82 games last season but dipped in production (13.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 44.1 FG), then got pancaked in Houston’s playoff series against Oklahoma City (4.0 ppg, 6-of-24 shooting, as many turnovers as assists).
This season, Lin has been in and out of the starting lineup, due partly to injuries (10 games missed with a knee sprain or back spasms) and partly to other injuries and combinations in the Rockets’ deep backcourt (James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks). Mixed results and dissatisfaction among fans even fueled some Lin trade rumors, though his $15 million “balloon” salary in 2013-14 likely doesn’t have clubs beating down GM Daryl Morey‘s door.
But a light of sorts went on for Lin on Jan. 28 against San Antonio when he subbed as a starter for Harden, and it stayed on since he moved back to the bench. Beginning that night, Houston has won five straight and Lin has been in attack mode, averaging 16.0 points, 6.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 33.3 minutes, while shooting 50 percent (38.9 from the arc). His numbers prior to that were down across the board, in reserve or starting.
“Just trying to be aggressive, just trying to play free and trying to be myself out there,” Lin said after the Rockets’ 101-95 victory over Milwaukee Saturday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. “That’s the biggest thing, just embrace whatever role they give me, big or small.”
Lin scored his 18 points in the first 19 minutes he logged against the Bucks, shooting 8-of-15 with four assists and a pair of steals. He played the entire fourth quarter and posted one particular roundabout highlight feed to Dwight Howard. He ran the offense up to a point, but kept his offense as a priority too.
“I still am responsible for getting other people going,” Lin said, “but I just think for me, whether I’m at the one or the two, I want to try to be very aggressive and attack a lot. Some nights it’s getting other people involved and some nights it’s getting myself involved.”
Houston coach Kevin McHale wants nothing less. “He needs to be aggressive,” McHale said recently. “Jeremy plays his best when he’s attacking, and when we have some pace in the game it really helps him.”
Lin has 19 appearances in reserve so far and 24 as a starter, so he needs to stick with the bench if he wants to get into the discussion for Sixth Man balloting. Harden is somebody who knows a little about that role, filling it to hardware- and conference-winning effect for the Thunder before his trade to Houston.
“He’s doing a great job,” Harden said of Lin. “He’s getting a feel for the game before he checks in, and once he checks in, he’s being aggressive and making the right plays. The more games he can get used to coming off the bench, the better off he’ll be.”
Playing the game mentally before actually playing in the game is the key, Harden said. “It’s the first six or seven minutes of the game,” said the Rockets’ leading scorer. “Knowing how the game is played, knowing who’s hot on the other team, knowing who has it going and who doesn’t have it going, and then just going out there and having an impact.”