By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
HOUSTON – In the end, it looked like every single reason that had pushed team owner Leslie Alexander to search around in the sofa cushions to find the $168 million and change to bring in a couple of big, big stars.
There was Dwight Howard going to work in the low post for nifty little jump hooks, powerful drives to the basket and also gobbling up critical rebounds coming down the stretch.
Here was the laboring James Harden at long last pulling a meaningful 3-point shot from somewhere out of his beard and coaxing it through the net just when the game was hanging in the balance.
At crunch time, for once in this compelling series, the Rockets didn’t get crunched.
But you’re crazy if you think Houston would have lived to play another day without a little ol’ dose of Linsanity.
It’s funny that Game 5 of this most compelling first round series should find Jeremy Lin in the role of fire-starter — and maybe season saver — getting the full-throated appreciation and roar from the Toyota Center crowd.
Before Sam Presti played Santa Claus and dropped Harden right down the Rockets’ chimney and before Howard had that ill-fitting season to live and die in L.A., this was going to be Lin’s team.
Flip the calendar back 21 months to the summer of 2012 and this was going to be his team. His face was ubiquitous on billboards that line the freeways, he could be seen smiling from the sides of buses.
Then Harden and Howard happened. Then Patrick Beverley arrived.
They changed again dramatically from Game 4 to Game 5 as well. The last time Lin was seen was Sunday night when he shot just 1-for-6 from the field and made a critical turnover in the final minute of regulation that allowed the Blazers to go on tie and win in OT.
This time, Lin took the baton from Beverley, who has been sick and ailing for several days, and practically turned back the clock to those crazy nights when he became a worldwide phenomenon at Madison Square Garden.
He zigged when the Blazers’ defense zagged. He found the cracks that let him get into the lane and all the way to the basket. He found the openings and the nerve to pull up and stab in long jumpers just when the Rockets seemed ready to topple again.
“He had these two big 3-pointers at the end of possessions as the shot clock was ending,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “Those were big momentum plays for them and they took a little bit out of us.”
Lin finished with 21 points, four assists and two steals in the Rockets’ 108-98 Game 5 victory. But it was a six-minute span late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when Portland cut their lead down to a single point and he was practically a one-man roll of duct tape holding the Rockets together.
There was the unpredictable style, those unorthodox moves that take him from the baseline back out the top of the key in the wink of an eye and that unmatchable, often inexplicable verve that can pick up and arena and put it on his skinny shoulders.
“I felt like I needed to be more of a spark tonight,” Lin said. “I haven’t done a great job of that this series. After the last game, I was really upset and I just believed and focused,” he said.
That changed in Game 5 when the Blazers’ Wes Matthews said that Lin was a deciding factor in the game.
“It seemed like Jeremy Lin hit big shot after big shot,” said Matthews said. “He was attacking the rim, hitting shots. We have to do a better job defensively on him.”
He’s still like summer lightning. You never know where or when he’ll strike and the damage can be significant. But Lin now has to pick his spots and wait his turn in the bigger, grander hierarchy of the Rockets.
“Jeremy has had some very good games for us,” said coach Kevin McHale. We needed him. He had a great stretch there where he was able to break people down. They were trying to pressure him all over and he broke the pressure down and going in the paint and made a couple of floaters.
“When they’re putting that much pressure on us, it really is hard to run an offense. You’ve got to break people down.”
The Rockets will chalk it up as $168 million well-spent with Howard and Harden delivering at the end.
But when the season was hanging in the balance, it was that dash of Linsanity that kept them from losing their heads.