Jeremy Lin

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


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.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.