In a game that seemed like a loss before it even began, the ability of Jeremy Lin to lead a team when he has the chance to be the point guard without interruptions, allowed the Charlotte Hornets to pick up a huge 106-97 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, with another big game from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, excellent shooting from Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky, and all this without Kemba Walker on the floor.
Lin scored 24 points and added 8 assists, coming up huge in the third quarter, when the Hornets turned the game around, outscoring the Cavaliers 33-17. He had three assists in the quarter including a beautiful one of taking three defenders with him to the paint before finding Marvin Williams open for three in the corner, scored 11 points including two three pointers and an and-1 following the assist of the night by Nicolas Batum, threading the needle between two players on a bounce pass. Lin and Batum did turn the ball over a combined nine times, but Lin wasn’t going to be benched for mistakes in this game, and so didn’t let them affect him like they normally do. When a player sees so much of the ball (32.8% usage, highest on the team in his 32 minutes), he’s going to make mistakes.
But with Lin free to be creative and not think about every little thing he does he gets to be the exciting point guard he is, often hiding under tactics, restrictions and strategies holding himself and the team back. Batum looked a lot better (still hurting on his toe) next to Lin, providing a better passing partner than Walker in terms of reading the floor and knowing what comes next. He scored 10 points and had 5 assists in 31 minutes.
But Kidd-Gilchrist might be the biggest revelation of the last week or so. His defense, his energy, his rebounding, but not his shooting. He finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, but on 5-of-14 from the field, with all of his baskets except one coming from right underneath the basket. He’s not going to fix his jump shot during the season, only once it’s over. For now, even if it limits his game, it’s better to improve when it comes to making contact near the basket, because a player as active as him near the rim should be going to the line more than two times in one game.
The Cavaliers lost for the first time after five wins, held to just 97 points after scoring 111 or more in five consecutive games. They simply fell apart in the third quarter, which allowed Clifford to rest Lin for 8 minutes in the fourth (Brian Roberts and the returning Jeremy Lamb did a good job, mostly by not trying to do things they don’t know how) before he returned to score six more points, ensuring the Cavaliers don’t come back. Kyrie Irving scored 26 points and LeBron James finished with 23, but defensively, the Cavs seemed lost and surprised at how mobile the Hornets were on offense, leaving shooters open (Kaminsky with 15 points) or the lane available for cuts and easy baskets.
This doesn’t mean the Hornets are better without Walker. It does mean they’re better when Lin is the one running the offense, while Walker, who is the better scorer, plays as something of an off-the-ball guard some of the time, and overall he probably would be more useful as a sixth man, although it’s not something we’re going to see Steve Clifford do. The trio of Lin-Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist on the perimeter provides much better defense and smarter passing.
Where to from here? The Hornets are almost back in full capacity. Al Jefferson has been out since December, and it seems the team is quite comfortable without him. Walker isn’t going to be out for long, and in the next game against the Miami Heat, it’ll be interesting once again to see what Clifford has learned from this game. This isn’t a one time thing; Lin as the point guard and not someone watching from the corner has proven again and again what kind of positive influence he can be on the team without making it his own show. Now it’s up to Clifford or those telling him instructions in his ears to make this move a permanent one.