Monday, February 20, 2012

LINSANITY!!!!!!!!!! (and other things)

From 1:00 in the afternoon to nearly midnight of yesterday, I parked my ass on the sofa and moved for only the real necessities of life: bladder developments, food, and to reposition onto another piece of furniture.  At 6:45 I got up to make dinner, moving quickly enough so as to be able to squeeze in the entire process prior to the start of the Denver-OKC matchup.  The day felt a whole lot like a Sunday in mid-October.

NBA fans around the league were treated to the best day of nationally covered basketball thus far in the lockout shorted, level-of-play-deflated 2012 season.  Over the three games between the Knicks and the Mavs, the Heat and the Magic, and the aforementioned Nuggets and Thunder, we got to watch three of the four best players in basketball (LeBron, Durant, Wade), six of the top ten (add Howard and Nowitzki -- who is finally playing as such), eight of the top fifteen to twenty (Westbrook, Bosh), and some guy named Jeremy Lin.  The typical trend when star-studded/playoff-caliber teams face off thus far has been disappointment, stemming from superstars “resting” on the bench (has anyone else noticed how painfully boring the Bulls are without Rose) or sloppy play in general.  All three of the games covered nation-wide proved to be riveting because teams were playing to their fullest potential. 

Here’s what I learned from this weekend.

I’ve refrained from joining the Jeremy Lin conversation because, probably deservingly so, he has erased every other basketball storyline and there are other ones out there.  Lin deserves the attention, but there must be people out there other than myself (a Knicks fan, by the way) who care about other happenings.  And if not, well I guess my first two columns didn’t do it for ya, so here comes number threeeeeeeeee.  

After what was probably his best performance to date, the time seems right for me to start dabble-Lin.  There really wasn’t anything more pointless during the first two weeks of Lin’s run than listening to every talking head in the sports universe give their opinion on the man.  Jalen Rose shook the sports world to its very core when he proclaimed (I’m paraphrasing), “I like what I’m seeing, but I need to see more before I can determine if Lin is for real.”  As if there was any other possibility? 

Then we had my personal favorite media-generated question, “How can these supposed talent scouts have any credibility after letting someone like this slip through the cracks?”  You mean, the same guys that said Kevin Durant was a future NBA star and Adam Morrison was not?  Are we discussing the same people who probably only get attention when guys bust or come out of nowhere as opposed to the hundreds upon hundreds of other young athletes who end up doing pretty much exactly as they were predicted?
Coming soon: Lining in the Rain, Schindler's Lin, and Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Lin (that took about 7 seconds to create)  
In any situation where the predicted success is so far off base from the outcome, the individual’s mentality and deeper emotional state are the driving forces behind the surprise.  Assessing these variables is by far the most difficult of endeavors.  Lin was praised for having “great confidence” because he took the game winning three against the Raptors despite struggling mightily from behind the arc for the rest of the game.  What if he had missed?  Would the same people turn around and say, “You’d really like to see someone in his position show a little more restraint and stop trying to do so much.”  The truth about player psychology is this: we cannot really know how they will hold up until the big moments arrive and even then, our interpretation of their mentality is really nothing more than an attribution of subsequent success or failure.  Yet, mentality is the defining point between NBA success and bust.    

While it is still way too early into Lin’s career to pass any judgments about where he will stand three season from now, he certainly seems to have figured out many elements of his game and we can already see the type of player he is shaping himself into.  Here are the four best and worst parts of his game thus far. 

(You will notice I have made the classification between “areas of strength” and “areas that could use improvement.”  To call any part of Lin’s game at this point a weakness seems inherently incorrect.  Every Lin moment should be appreciated at face value rather than used to magnify his understandably ubiquitous and hopefully short-lived deficiencies.  Have you ever heard a player get criticized for ball-carelessness eight starts into a career?  It’s easy to look at the final stat line and say, “Whoa, nine turnovers?  This guy has no idea what he’s doing with the basketball.”  However, if you actually watch the game you will know statistics can often be misleading.  Lin recorded seven turnovers against Dallas.  One came in the first half, and with the exception of a three-minute stretch where he committed as many turnovers, he was pretty secure in his ball handling.  Lin also played all but two minutes of the game.  In any case, these things become less of an issue as ones experience grows.  Only when a player is an all-star in many other respects do people dwell on weaker areas.  If Lin is already getting this, he should really take it as a compliment.  Lin is either an incredible rookie talent or an all-star that needs to be more judicious with the ball.  He can’t be both.) 

Areas of Strength:
1. Mentality (see above)

2. Attacks the paint
3. Stays low to the court
These are probably the two most effective aspects of his game.  A lot of people do not realize Lin is a relatively big point guard, standing at 6’3” and 200 pounds. He utilizes all of it once he gets under the hoop and as he moves through the air, shielding the ball with his body and morphing as he collides with would be shot blockers.  However, before he gets directly under the basket, Lin likes to keep low to the ground, not dissimilar to the methods used by NFL tailbacks.  This fact, teamed with a promising cross over and ability to split two defenders, makes this the most difficult to stop component of Lin’s game.  If a forward is guarding him, Lin can get small.  If a guard has the task of matching up with Lin, he can use all 200 of his pounds.  

4. Patient and Intelligent Shooter
Lin has made more than 50% of his shots since becoming a starter.  He’s shooting 38.5% from long range, a reasonable number for someone who has spent a vast majority of his time playing with the college perimeter.  The bleakest moment for the Knicks in their Sunday game came midway through the third quarter as they reverted back to the bad-D’Antoni, heaving brick upon brick seven seconds through the shot-clock.  It was Lin’s deliberate attempts to slow the pace of the game that settled the offense.        
Areas That Could Use Improvement
1. Free Throws
Lin has shot 70% from the line since becoming a starter.  It’s not terrible, but 28 qualifying point guards shoot over 75%.  Why am I fussing over 5% (especially when I’ve already said it’s unfair to hold Lin up to the standards of experienced starters)?  Lin has averaged 8 free-throw attempts per game over that same stretch.  That’s fourth best league-wide and by far the most of any point guard.  He could easily add two to his PPG with improved free throw shooting.  I’m sure he’s already on top of this.   

2. Look up when driving to the basket.
3. Protecting the rock
While Lin’s tendency to shrink down as he attacks the hoop is one of his strong points, he needs to avoid dropping his head down as well.  He’s already noticeably improved in this regard, but there is still more to be made (obviously).  This is usually the catalyst for his inside-the-paint fumbles.  The more time he spends with his head up, the easier it will be to spot open teammates and lanky forwards waiting to slap away the ball who are always lurking once you get within ten foot of the hoop.   
Dirk was able to poke his upper-left-hand-corner arm into the ball a
few times this past Sunday.
4. Stronger passing
Lin’s assist numbers are there.  I don’t know how you can measure this, but the eyeball test tells me that many of his passes don’t have quite enough juice.  He likes to penetrate and then kick the ball out.  Even if the recipient of the pass can knock down a jumper, it just seems like the whole process takes half a second too long.  Again, this is nitpicking. 

Jeremy Lin’s Wikipedia page is longer than that of Brett Favre, Bill Gates, Beethoven, nine US Presidents, the continents of South America, Australia, and Asia, and the National Basketball Association.  Although these results would suggest otherwise, he is not bigger than the entire league… 

Other Points from the Weekend
Nobody can touch Miami.  If you take away Bosh and Wade they’re still the best team in the East.  If you take away Wade or LeBron, they are a 60-win team.  If you take away all three, they might still be able to get to .500.  The supporting cast has improved drastically and Jeremy Lin was the greatest thing that could have ever happened to the organization; I’m the only person outside of South Beach who seems to realize they still exist.   Of course, that will change very soon once Miami defeats New York by 20 this Thursday.

Dwight Howard is trying his best.  He says all his teammates keep telling him they support him.  I’m not too sure about that, but if needs to repeat that to himself daily in order to maintain 20 PPG and 15 RPG, then I see nothing wrong with it.  He must be staying in Orlando all year at this point, right?

Denver is the antithesis of basketball and I love it.  Six players average over 10 points a game and eight are at 9 PPG or higher.  I dare you to find me a bigger collection of misfits and unwanted talent.  Danilo?  Nene? Birdman?  Somehow this team sits two games over .500.  You can sort of see how this arrangement would work.  Nobody’s an all-star.  Nobody’s going to get any airtime.  Nobody has anything to play for other than a W.  They will be overmatched in talent on every night, but even in the loaded Western Conference, Denver is never an easy out – just as Oklahoma City.
No, not him - although the resemblance is striking.  
I don’t know whether my stance on OKC is right or wrong.  I was critical of the team last week because the ball seems to get stuck in the hands of Westbrook rather than Durant.  There is no denying Westbrook’s talent and he dazzles every night, but I struggle to find an English word that can encapsulate Durant’s immense and limitless abilities.  I must have shouted, “No!” on nearly half of Westbrook’s fourth-quarter and overtime shots last night, but I think all of them went in.  Maybe he really can drain from anywhere on the court.  Then again, down the stretch, Durant proved why I say the things I say about Westbrook.  Durant absolutely owned the fourth quarter with a single-minded confidence and dedication to winning that I haven’t seen since prime-Duncan (Kobe’s got it too, but, understandably so, he must be thinking about climbing the career scoring list at least a little).  He hit two long-range three balls in the closing minute before taking the ball to the hoop so effortlessly that my friend I was watching the game (Joe) with thought Denver let him score to regain possession tied and with under five seconds left.  Upon review it was clear: Denver was actually trying to play defense.  Once it got to extra time, Westbrook took over, connecting on three field goals including one from three-point range.  Oh, and by the way, Serge Ibaka recorded a triple double with 14 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 blocks.  I love this team.  They’re exciting as hell, young, and dominated by homegrown Oklahoma City talent. 

I’m still not ready to believe this is the type of dominating performance their stars can deliver throughout the entire postseason.  We saw last year what happens when a team puts too much stock in just three players on a given night.  However, these are the wins that will let them figure it all out. 


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