By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
The Rockets look powerful when Dwight Howard is making his presence felt in the low post, grabbing rebounds for put-backs, spinning in the lane to drop in those jump hooks he’s honing in during workouts with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Rockets look like a tough nut to crack when James Harden is weaving like a wild-eyed taxi driver through traffic in the lane to finish for improbable layups and stepping back to stab in his long 3-pointers with ease.
But the Rockets become positively confounding to defenders when Jeremy Lin is doing all of the things he can do. Which is why Lin’s recent emergence from a slump is worth noting.
“We need Jeremy,” said coach Kevin McHale. “He just makes a lot of things happen and when he is rolling it just gives us more versatility to do different things.”
While there will never be a return to the “Linsanity” days in New York, that ability to strike inside and out, create for his teammates, get all the way to the rim and hit a critical shot from the outside is what can elevate Houston to being the most difficult offense to stop in the Western Conference.
The Rockets don’t need him to be the big hammer in their attack as much as a bowling ball that strikes and send pins scattering.
When the Rockets trailed the Trail Blazers midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, Lin came back onto the floor as part of a small lineup that simply exploded. From the end of regulation through overtime, he scored 18 points, dropped in a trio of treys, grabbed a rebound and made a steal. His final line: 26 points, three rebounds, two steals and an assist. It was his highest scoring game since Nov. 13 and, more important, it was the first time in weeks that he’d played pain-free.
Since the All-Star break, Lin had been bothered by a tightness in his back that did not keep him out of the lineup but did keep him from looking like himself. He was slow, tentative, unsure of each movement on the court and, as usual, it brought up the old debate on social media. One side says that he’s overrated and a fabrication of the hyperventilating media while the other side says he’s underused and under-appreciated by McHale.
The latter, of course, is patently untrue since nobody benefits more from an effective Lin than McHale, who in three seasons with the Rockets has shown himself to be nothing if not adaptable.
It certainly helped that the Rockets went 8-2 coming out of the All-Star break and charged to a spot near the top of the conference standings. But in the first eight games, Lin struggled badly, shooting just 29 percent (16-for-55) and averaged only 6.3 points and 2.6 turnovers.
In their past three games, Lin has shot 14-for-28, averaging 15 points and 2.0 assists.
“If you ask me if it feels good to be back, yes,” Lin said. “It feels good.”
It didn’t help combat Lin’s critics that during his struggles he never missed a game. However, it probably also doesn’t help that Lin can sometimes be his own most difficult impediment. Perhaps it’s a product of being one of those deep thinkers from Harvard, but Lin can occasionally tie himself into mental knots. When he is at his best, Lin is instinctive, unpredictable, like a spark that can ignite a wildfire. When he hits a rough spot, it tends to linger and you can almost see the wheels turning inside his head as he tries to figure out what’s gone wrong.
The difference is striking.
“Without Jeremy Lin, we don’t win that (Portland) game,” said teammate Chandler Parsons. “He has been struggling lately, but we believed in him. He has been great all year long. Everyone goes through rough patches.”
Not everyone has to live up to a two-week fantasy from two years ago that instantly made them a cult figure all around the world.
“I tell him to just relax and play basketball, be the player that he can be,” McHale said. “We don’t need Linsanity.”
But the return of Jeremy Lin’s spark and unpredictability to go with the foundation of Harden and Howard would make the Rockets a very tough out in the playoffs.