HOUSTON — Jeremy Lin often seems surprised by himself, as if he is merely the agent of some Great Force, and he’ll be damned if he knows how he’s going to be torqued around that day.
He plays poorly, and seems surprised. He plays great, and seems surprised. Is he even real? One of these days he may just — poof — vaporize into thin air, gone as quickly as he came.
Lin was brilliant Monday night at Toyota Center, even though the San Antonio Spurs (18-4) beat the Rockets (9-11) 134-126 in overtime. He scored 38 points. He had seven assists.
Lin really rides the waves. You could see it when he got hot. Suddenly, when he drove the lane, he drove like he knew something good would happen. There hadn’t been much of that this year. After he made a few jumpers, he put up a high-arcing fadeaway over Tim Duncan, and it went in, because of course it did. That’s the way it goes with Lin.
“That’s really important for me,” he said. “A lot of times if I hit one, I hit a few more.”
But Lin drowns in the surf, too, and when it was all over Monday night, there was no telling whether his head was above water or not.
The score was tied at 120 with seconds left and Lin had the ball. He was going to make a play to win the game. But he dribbled it too much and the Spurs stole it. So the game went to overtime, and Lin wasn’t the same.
“He let that last play (of regulation) affect him a little bit,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
Probably it was not a coincidence that Lin’s best performance of the season happened with James Harden sitting out with an injury. Lin and Harden both feel most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and so you can see where Lin might feel a little lost at times on this team. So he feels not quite like himself, and the shots don’t go in, and one night he puts up an airball on a catch-and-shoot with the game on the line, and then his drives start to look tentative too and he’s quickly got a whole soup of self-doubt sloshing around in his head.
But Monday the ball was in his hands, and he looked like the guy from New York, the guy who was on the cover of GQ. He tied a career high.
“I’m thankful I was able to get comfortable out there,” he said. “But that’s definitely secondary to the fact we blew another close game. I had the ball to win it, and didn’t even get a shot up.”
The Spurs, as the Spurs are wont to do, made the Rockets pay for that mistake. They built an eight-point lead over the first three minutes of overtime and coasted home from there. With seven seconds left, Lin missed a driving layup that would have given him 40.
So somehow on a night Lin scored almost 40, Tony Parker still got the better of him. Parker had 27 points and 12 assists in 42 minutes and his team won.
“Those guys, those closers, have been in a million of those games,” McHale said.
So, yes, the Spurs are better than the Rockets, but nothing new was proven there. The Lin thing was new, or at least renewed. The first 19 games of his Rockets career had done nothing but prove he was not that guy we had all seen in New York. He had scored more than 20 just one other time this year. He was averaging 9.9 points and shooting 38 percent. Toney Douglas had become Houston’s crunch-time point guard.
It seemed the world was discovering once and for all that Lin just wasn’t all that good.
Then Monday happened, and the new question is, Can Lin and Harden succeed on the same team?
McHale said he thought so, but what else is he going to say. He thinks the Rockets can take advantage of both Lin’s and Harden’s driving ability by putting them on opposite sides of the floor.
Maybe that’s true. The Rockets have a lot of things to work out still, and that may be one of them.
But there is something about Lin, too. His monochromatic voice fools you into thinking he’s mono-emotional. But he isn’t. He goes the way the Great Force pushes him.
After Monday night, it was hard to say which direction that was.