When his team is void of a superstar and relying on him for a big performance, it seems Jeremy Lin has a pension for the dramatic.
It was less than a year ago that Lin stormed onto the scene in the Big Apple in the absence of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire and kicked off a spell that came to be known as Linsanity. It was that period of time that earned him a massive contract with the Rockets and he showed he still has it on Monday night.
With the Rockets missing James Harden due to a sprained ankle, Lin stepped into the spotlight and matched the best performance of his career against San Antonio, finishing with 38 points and 7 assists. The Rockets resembled the New York Knicks back court of old as Toney Douglas filled in for Harden and fed off Lin’s penetration by waiting for kick out passes and draining five three pointers in a 17 point performance.
Lin’s remarkable ability to run the pick and roll is a tool that has been somewhat overshadowed in an underachieving season where he has played second fiddle to Harden, but with the ball in his hands, Lin seized the moment and proceeded to feed his teammates with crisp passes and fired home 52 percent of his own shots.
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The Rockets were particularly hot through Douglas and Lin coming out of the third quarter as they spread their lead to nine points early in the fourth. The Spurs and Rockets rank second and fourth respectively in fourth quarter scoring and it showed in this one as neither was able to come up with the defensive plays to keep the other at bay until late in the game.
The Spurs came roaring back from nine down through a spark provided by Manu Ginobili (22 points on the night) and improved team defense thanks to Tim Duncan getting back on the floor after he missed a good portion of the game due to foul trouble. But Chandler Parsons was particularly impressive for Houston down the stretch along with Lin, adding 20 points to help the Rockets send the game to overtime tied at 120-120 after the Spurs took a lead in the final five minutes.
The experience and calm demeanor of San Antonio dominated in overtime as the Spurs outscored the Rockets 14-6 and finally found their defensive footing. In a game where defense was hard to come by, San Antonio showed why they’re a contender, while the Rockets are little more than a flashy team that is undoubtedly fun to watch.
Houston came out and did well to go at Tim Duncan early in this one, rendering him ineffective as he would sit on the bench in foul trouble for a large chunk of the game, but the Spurs couldn’t be contained as they shot 52 percent on the night and got 29 points out of Gary Neal who went 7-of-10 from beyond the arc.
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The Rockets are the worst defensive team in the NBA, a fact that continues to haunt them as they attempt to overpower team’s using offense alone. That won’t work against a guard like Tony Parker who finished with the first triple-double of his career with 27 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.
It’s been established that the Rockets are a work in progress, but they need to find some defensive presence and quick. Marcus Morris and Omer Asik are both good players offensively (combined for 34 points on Monday), but their defensive weaknesses make it tough for Houston to get stops in big situations.
The Rockets were out done in rebounds 49-40, points in the paint 56-38 and fast break points 20-10. The fact that they were able to keep this game interesting says a lot for what they can do from three point range, but given that they had five players in double digits, it’s a sign of their immaturity that they couldn’t finish off San Antonio down the stretch.
The Spurs were also buoyed by solid defensive plays by Danny Green and Tim Duncan with the game on the line. Two of Duncan’s three blocks came in the late fourth quarter and overtime, while Green’s two steals and two blocks were also in timely moments down the stretch, none bigger than his forcing Lin into a shot clock violation in the final moments.
The contrast between these two teams is drastic, but the fact that the game was as entertaining as any fan could have hoped for says a lot for the Rockets. The work Kevin McHale is doing with his young team is impressive and if general manager Darryl Morey can bring in a difference maker on the defensive side of the ball, Houston will be a force to be reckoned with.
For the Spurs, they faced up to a tough test and came out on top against the third ranked offense in the league, but the work ahead will be tough as the one team ahead of them in scoring is a team they could very likely see on their road to another NBA Finals: Oklahoma City.