The Mavs Ran Into The Hottest Thing in the NBA This Week. It Didn't Go Well.
It's easy to have good-ol'-days syndrome, having grown up in what's often referred to as the NBA's Golden Age, the 1980s. I'll be honest: Since the end of that glorious decade — back when Michael Jackson's skin was black… and he was still alive — my interest in the NBA as a whole has slowly waned throughout the years. While I've remained a loyal Mavericks fan — and last year's championship certainly capped the most exciting season in franchise history — I rarely find myself tuning in to other games.
Topping the list of the reasons behind my apathy toward the other 29 teams? What I view as a dearth of players who have basketball IQs to match or exceed their God-given abilities.
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon and Isaiah Thomas all had athletic talent to spare, but their feel for the game is what made them legends and repeat champions. It's also what made them worth watching, no matter who their respective teams were playing.
So, I'll admit it: I was a little wary of all this Jeremy Lin business.
Sure, like the rest of the planet, I've been following his fascinating story. But while the highlights and box scores from his first few starts were nothing short of amazing, I had convinced myself that, much like Tim Tebow, his bang-to-hype ratio just had to be way out of whack.
Then I watched him play against Dallas on Sunday afternoon. And he did the seemingly impossible. After suffering through vomit-inducing puns and endless publicity during the last couple weeks, Lin still managed to leave me — and everyone else watching the game — completely awestruck.
Before I go any further, let me make one thing perfectly clear: In no way am I saying that Lin is the next Jordan, Johnson, Bird, Olajuwon, Thomas or anyone else. But what I do see in Lin is a sharp basketball brain and capacity to thrive under pressure that will ensure he's successful long after everyone forgets the Tebows of the world.
You could see it clearly in the Mavericks' Sunday match-up against Lin's New York Knicks. Dallas' strategy was abundantly clear: Stop. Jeremy. Lin.
They double-teamed him constantly. They had Shawn Marion, their best defender and a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate, guard him for most of the game. They pressured him. They were physical. They mixed up their defensive schemes. They flexed the muscles of a defense ranked first in opponents' field goal percentage and fifth in points allowed.
So how did Lin respond? Oh, just by setting a career high with 14 assists, while scoring 28 points, grabbing five steals and nailing two huge fourth quarter three-pointers and leading the Knicks to their eighth win in the nine games he had started.
Non-believers are quick to point to Lin's propensity to turn the ball over — and, true to form, he did have seven turnovers against the Mavs, leading to nine Dallas points.
This certainly isn't a good attribute in a point guard — much less any other player on the floor — but I see this becoming less of a concern moving forward as he continues to acclimate to the NBA. For a guy who played nearly every minute of the game (45:38 to be exact) and handled the ball in almost every possession, fans can live with a few mistakes here and there.
No, Lin didn't exactly beat the Mavs by his lonesome — and he's the first one to admit that, which is another reason why Lin's so refreshing. He had help from J.R. Smith, who scored 15 points in his first game back in the NBA since playing in China during the lockout, and Steve Novak, who had a surprising 14 points and hit four threes in the fourth quarter. But New York was also without its top scorer, Carmelo Anthony, and one of its best defenders, Bill Walker.
Nonetheless, Lin's smarts and quickness allowed him to dominate against one of the league's top defensive clubs, and, when his team needed him to come through, Lin was spectacular.
His back-to-back three-pointer and floater to end the first quarter gave the Knicks an early 12-point lead. His steal and dunk to end the third caused the crowd to jump out of their seats. His three-pointer over Dirk Nowitzki with 6:51 left in the game to extend the lead to nine points was nothing short of phenomenal. And, of course, the trey he hit as the shot clock was winding down, extending the lead back to five points after Jason Terry hit one of his own to close the deficit to two, was just insane.
And it was all on national TV and against the defending champs, overshadowing arguably Nowitzki's best game of the year in the process.
“The game that he had, that's ridiculous,” Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni said after the game. “The thing you can't teach is what's inside his heart. His heart is huge and you can't teach that.”
In this frenzied, shortened NBA season, Sunday's loss means little to the Mavericks. Friday's 15-point comeback against the 76ers, last night's thumping of the Celtics (albeit sans Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett) and their 21-12 record are enough evidence to suggest Dallas is doing just fine.
But for the 23-year-old Lin, the Knicks and the NBA, the game served as vindication for all the nonstop praise Lin has received in such a short amount of time. Yes, New York lost last night to a shitty Nets team, but it was hardly Lin's fault, as he racked up 21 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, four steals and just three turnovers.
I have no idea why the Mavs, Rockets and Warriors failed to recognize Lin's seemingly limitless potential. Much like every MLB team passed on Albert Pujols at least 12 times in the 1999 draft and NFL scouts decided there were 198 better players than Tom Brady in the 2000 draft, there's no real answer to that question.
I also have no idea what's in store for Lin as he plays more and learns more. But, for the first time in two decades, I'll be tuning in to find out.
The NBA, finally, is interesting again.