The One Major Difference In Jeremy Lin’s Game This Season

The Houston Rockets finally got a taste of Linsanity last night as Jeremy Lin tied his career-high with 38 points in their overtime loss to the Spurs at Houston’s Toyota Center. It was just a soupçon of Linsanity, though, and that’s because before last night’s explosion, Lin came into the Rockets’ second game against the Spurs in less than a week (they got blown out by them, 114-92, on Friday) averaging under 10 points a game while shooting under 40 percent from the field. He isn’t playing as awful as he looked in the preseason, but it’s a far cry from his MSG exploits less than a year ago. So what’s changed in Houston?

Part of the blame falls on the acquisition of James Harden. That’s no slight on Harden, and the two of them are often working pretty well in concert together this season as the young backcourt of Houston’s future, but Harden needs the ball to get the most out of his abilities. The problem is Lin needs the rock to get into the lane and break down opposing defenses too, and there’s still just one ball between them. But it’s not simply touches that have been holding Lin back this season. It’s Lin’s midrange shooting that is the primary difference from last season’s exploits for New York.

Lin’s actually attempting more shots at the rim (4.1 vs. 3.9), and connecting on more of them than he did last year (56 vs. 53 percent), per Hoopdata. Unfortunately, he’s not getting fouled as much as last season, where he attempted twice as many free throws (2.6 vs. 5.2) on a per game basis. Even though he’s attempting more threes than he did last year (2.7 vs. 2.1), he’s still shooting at close to the same effective three-point field goal percentage (47.3 vs. 48.0). So Lin’s ability to get into the lane and make shots at the basket while also knocking down his three-pointers isn’t the issue; although, Rockets fans would like to see him at the line more where he’s shooting over 84 percent this season. No, the issue is the no man’s land in-between the rim and the three-point arc.

Last year, Lin attempted 4.8 shots between three and 23 feet from the basket, per Hoopdata. He connected on 2.1 of those shots, good for a 44 percent average on his midrange shots. This season, he’s attempting more than a shot less from that range. Not only that, but he’s only connecting on 1.1 of 3.6 attempts, which translates to around 31 percent. That’s more than 10 percentage points lower in the midrange game than last season’s run for the Knicks.

While the space in-between the three-point line and the hoop is generally considered the least efficient spot on the floor (long twos are the worst), it’s the space where Jeremy Lin often thrived with the Knicks. Interestingly, it’s also a spot where Tony Parker has made an impact for San Antonio, and there were a number of comparisons between the two guards leading up to their game last night.

Last season with the Knicks, Lin often started with the ball at the top of the key, and after breaking down his defender, he was able either to pull-up for a short jumper, or loft a floater over the rotating bigs. This didn’t mean he didn’t finish at the rim – he did, and he also drew more fouls – but he was a lot more efficient shooting that little 15-foot jumper when his man slacked off him to protect the lane, or the runner in the lane if the bigs rotating over forced him to shoot before he made it all the way to the rim. He was shooting better from the midrange on the whole, even if it’s not a very efficient shot.

Obviously, James Harden and Chandler Parsons have a little to do with this. Both are attempting more shots in the 3-23 foot range than they did last year, per Hoopdata. Parsons especially likes to set up on the wing and work the midrange game to his benefit, and Harden is the primary ballhandler for the Rockets late in games. Interestingly, Lin has assisted on most of Parson’s buckets this season, with Harden next in line. But while Lin has shot poorly in the midrange, he’s done other things better this season, which is why there hasn’t been a huge backlash about his poison pill contract just yet.

Lin’s cut down on his turnovers, he’s rebounding better (if you watched him in overtime last night, he jumped across the lane to block Tim Duncan from a board, before falling hard to the court), and he’s getting in the passing lanes to the tune of almost two steals a game. He’s playing like a mediocre NBA starter, but he’s not yet reaching the heights he achieved in New York… except, for last night, where he again showed NBA observers he can go off when given the opportunity (Harden sat out the game with a sprained ankle).

Kevin McHale, after returning from his leave of absence earlier this year, has already said he wants the ball in Lin’s hands more, regardless of whether Harden is suiting up. That will probably mean more opportunities as McHale takes the head coaching reins again. If Lin has the ball in his hands more, he should get more easy points at the line, and improve his midrange jump shot. It’s not so important that Lin attempts more shots in the no man’s land between the arc and the bucket, but he has to shoot more efficiently if the Rockets are going to make a run at a Western Conference playoff spot.

So far, it’s his midrange game that’s been the difference from last season’s heroics, but I wouldn’t bet against Lin turning it around. As we saw last night, he still has the magic. It’s just a question of whether he’ll be able to get the most out of it with all the perimeter personnel the Rockets possess.

Can Lin be a leader of a playoff team?

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