Jeremy Lin returns to Madison Square Garden Monday, without “Linsanity”

10 Comments

Jeremy Lin is back in the place it all came together for him.

But it’s not the same.

Monday night Jeremy Lin brings his new team the Houston Rockets into Madison Square Garden to take on the team where for a stretch he played stunningly good, exciting basketball that energized a sullen fan base. It was enough to win the hearts of many Knicks fans, it was enough to earn a three-year, $25 million contract offer from Houston that Knicks management did not want to match. Which pissed off a lot of Knicks fans.

But it was best for Lin the basketball player. We’ll get to that.

While fans and media want to reminisce about the weeks of “Linsanity” in New York and how that led to a contract with him leaving town, Lin and the Knicks players didn’t really want to go there. Lin told the Houston Chronicle he wanted some closure.

“If I were to be realistic, there will probably be a little bit of nostalgia or reminiscing and thankful for those times because those were great times,” Lin said. “At the same time, it’s the next chapter. I’m definitely ready to get it over with. I think in some sense there will be some closure. This will be the first return back to MSG, and there will never be another first return. We’re going to go out and play and have some fun.”

This may be the closure Lin wants, because Linsanity seems to be dying. If you want some evidence, notice that fans around the world did not have Lin voted among the starters to the NBA All-Star Game in the first ballot returns. He was third in guards in the West, behind Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, but still ahead of guys he shouldn’t be like teammate James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and O.J. Mayo.

In part the fascination with Lin is dying because the Knicks have been good this season, the top team in the East at 18-5. Plus new Knicks point guard Raymond Felton is playing pretty well. If the Knicks and Felton were struggling fans would be revisiting the Lin decision a lot more.

The other part is that Lin himself is struggling — he is scoring 10.8 points per game (down from 14.6 with the Knicks last season), he is shooting 39.5 percent this season (down from 44.6 percent), he is assisting on a lower percentage of his teammates baskets, his PER has dropped from a borderline All-Star level of 19.9 down to a below average 13.1.

Lin admitted he is struggling talking to the New York Post, following a 3-for-9 shooting performance in Toronto Sunday where Lin had seven points, two assists and three turnovers.

“Terrible. I think I’m not doing close to what I’m capable of doing and it’s a matter of figuring out how to get myself to play more like myself within the system with the change of scenery. I’ll be my harshest critic but I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m doing terrible.’’

His move out of New York was still the best thing for him.

While a perfect storm of events came together for Lin last season to spark Linsanity, he is still a guy that came into the season undrafted and having started 25 games in the NBA. He had a steep learning curve ahead of him — he has struggles to go left, he doesn’t have a great three point shot yet (31.5 percent this season), he is shooting just 30.4 percent from 10 feet out to the arc this season (last season 46.4 percent) making it easier to guard him, and he has to learn to work off the ball more with James Harden on his team.

It’s the kind of learning curve a lot of good 23 year olds with potential struggle with in the NBA.

But if Lin had to do this in New York right now his struggles would be all over the back page of the New York Post, fighting for headlines of futility with the Jets. It would be much harder for him to develop under that microscope, with all that that attention and demands on his time.

In Houston, he can pretty much walk up to the arena unbothered. He’s a star and one of the faces of the franchise, but the intensity of attention is different. As is the pressure to win now — the Rockets are rebuilding, there is no rebuilding in New York. (Well, there had to be after Isiah Thomas, but that’s another story.)

He needs a season to play and struggle and figure it out. And he will. He may never again play for an extended period like those weeks of Linsanity, but he can be a good NBA point guard. It just takes time, and in Houston he will get it in a way he couldn’t in New York.

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

AP Photo/Darren Abate
Leave a comment

The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
1 Comment

MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Leave a comment

The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
1 Comment

Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.