11:49 am Feb. 20, 2012
Maybe it's time to put the idea to rest that Jeremy Lin only succeeds against bad defenses.
Lin's breakout game two weeks ago came against a flawed Nets team, but one with an elite point guard in Deron Williams guarding him, and a strong shot-blocker in Kris Humphries near the basket.
Lin followed that up with a memorable performance against a rested Utah Jazz team that entered the game 13-10.
Then Lin destroyed the Los Angeles Lakers two games later, scoring 38 points, more than any other player has scored in a Lakers game this year except for Kobe Bryant.
Each time, there were doubts about what Lin's performance actually meant, and questions about how much his performance had to do with the defensive flaws or general preparedness of the teams he played against.
But there were no asterisks or other reservations about Knicks' opponent on Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks. The defending N.B.A. champions are an elite team with a lockdown defense. The Mavericks defended Lin with 6'7” Shawn Marion, the man who contained Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant in last year's playoffs, and they doubled Lin every time he touched the ball.
The result: Lin had 28 points, a career-high 14 assists and five steals in leading the Knicks to a 104-97 victory before a Madison Square Garden crowd that has been at playoff intensity for the last two weeks.
There's still skepticism, if only because Lin just hasn't been around for that long.
Jason Terry, the top reserve point guard on Dallas, described the excitement around Lin as “a lot of hype right now” prior to the game, and added this at the game's conclusion:
“If you play 46 minutes (a game) in this league, you have an opportunity to put up some nice numbers. Again, it is what it is. He’ll have to maintain this pace. It’s going to be tough. Ask anybody: Give them an opportunity, ball in their hands, 20-plus shots, and you better do something.”
The problem with Terry's characterization of Lin is that Lin's task is harder, not easier, because of what the Knicks have asked of him over the course of their 8-1 run with him as a starter. And his success goes far beyond the mere accumulation of total stats—his rate stats are impressive, too, as are the spots within games where he is putting up his numbers.
Over the nine games Jeremy Lin has played regular minutes for New York, he's averaged just under 18 shots per game. Despite facing an increasing number of double teams, and largely performing without Amar'e Stoudemire or Carmelo Anthony to deflect some of the defensive focus from him, Lin is shooting 51 percent in those games. In other words, he hasn't just scored a lot of points by throwing up a lot of shots.
Moreover, his shooting hasn't come at the expense of his role as a point guard. Lin's assist percentage—the percentage of assists he collects per 100 plays—stands at an even 50 percent in 2011-12. That's better than Boston's Rajon Rondo, New Jersey's Deron Williams, the Clippers' Chris Paul—every point guard in the league but Steve Nash, who is at an ungodly 59 percent this season.
A better comparison is to Nash in the Phoenix offense generally, and provides a useful comparison for Jeremy Lin. Nash, since arriving in Phoenix back in 2004-05 to play for then-Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, is at a 48.7 assist percentage. In other words, Lin isn't simply putting up strong assist numbers—he's been converting plays with his teammates at a better percentage than Nash has in the same offense.
As for Lin's turnover problem—he had seven on Sunday, and nine in Friday night's loss to New Orleans—that is greatly overstated as well. Remember, Lin has the ball an awful lot of the time, both due to minutes played and by virtue of his position. So it is again rate, rather than total, we should be looking at.
Lin's turnover percentage per 100 plays of 21.6 is better than point-guard luminaries like Dallas's Jason Kidd (29.6 percent), Nash (24.6 percent) and Minnesota's Ricky Rubio (22.3 percent). He's slightly more turnover-prone than Miami's Mario Chalmers (21), Rondo (20.9) or Denver's Raymond Felton (20.1), but again, with an assist percentage that blows all of them, except for Nash, away.
And it should be noted as well that Lin's biggest moments came at pivotal junctures in the Dallas game. Late in the third quarter, Lin converted a pair of acrobatic layups, getting fouled each time, to bring the Knicks back from 12 points down. Lin then stole a pass in the Dallas backcourt, raced to the basket and dunked to bring New York within three points entering the final period. In the fourth quarter, Dallas played a terrific defensive sequence, now trailing 87-81. The ball found its way back to Lin beyond the three-point arc, who drained a long-distance shot to put the Knicks up by nine, forced a Dallas timeout, and brought Madison Square Garden to an even louder decibel level.
As Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who starred in the middle of Dallas' championship run last season, put it: "I was talking to them before the game and they were saying they had an answer for Lin. I guess they were dead wrong on their scouting report."
The players and teams who deserve skepticism at this point are the ones who claim to have an easy answer for Lin.