Tahlequah Daily Press

Thunder/NBA

April 24, 2013

Lin draws tough playoff debut against Westbrook

OKLAHOMA CITY — Jeremy Lin’s introduction to the playoffs couldn’t be a much tougher one.

After sparking the Linsanity craze last season while going from sleeping on a teammate’s couch to becoming a sudden star, Lin is making his playoff debut with a head-to-head match-up against All-Star Russell Westbrook.

Not much went right for Lin in his first postseason game.

He made just one of his seven shots, committed four turnovers to go with his four assists and ended up with four points, almost 10 less than his season average. He didn’t fare much better on defense, with Westbrook falling just two rebounds shy of a triple-double despite sitting out the fourth quarter of a 120-91 blowout by Oklahoma City.

The Rockets will need more from Lin if they hope to make it a series against the top-seeded Thunder. Game 2 is Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.

“Jeremy will be fine. He’s a tough kid. He bounces back,” coach Kevin McHale said. “You’ve got to go out there. A little bit of it is just relax and go play. I think he was a little bit hyped up, a little bit amped up, and he needs to just relax and go play.”

Lin’s story is already remarkable. He had been cut three times and didn’t know if he was going to be able to stick around in the NBA, so he was sleeping on teammate Landry Fields’ couch before his big breakout game with the New York Knicks last season.

He’d go on to average 24.6 points and 9.2 assists over a 10-game span, but his sensational run came to an end when he injured his knee. The Rockets pursued him as a restricted free agent in the offseason, and when New York was unwilling to match Houston’s back-loaded three-year, $25 million offer, they had their new point guard.

Starting in the backcourt alongside All-Star James Harden — a preseason acquisition in a trade with the Thunder — Lin helped Houston reach the playoffs for the first time in four years. It’s his first postseason, after being sidelined for the Knicks’ first-round loss to Miami last season.

After Game 1, he spoke about his subpar performance and how he didn’t think he was that far off.

“I literally thought every single one of my shots were in. I actually believed that,” Lin said. “I’m being completely honest with you -- I thought every single one was in. They were all kind of back rim. I don’t know if I was a little too excited or whatever it might be but it’s not going to happen every game.”

McHale is counting on that.

“It was his first playoff game. I think he just had to go through that and experience it,” McHale said. “Jeremy has bounced back all year long. He’s a young kid. This is the first time he’s ever started on a team in the NBA from start to finish, the first season he ever went through training camp as the starter.

“Jeremy’s had a lot of very, very good bounce-back games where he might have had a bad game or bad couple of games and then he bounced back because he’s a tough kid. I’m really not worried about Jeremy.”

Anyone would have a hard time slowing down Westbrook. Oklahoma City’s lightning-fast point guard ranked in the top 10 in scoring (23.2 points per game), assists (7.4 apg) and steals (1.77 spg) in the NBA this season, and went right at the Rockets’ defense in the opener.

“I think Russell at his position is similar to LeBron in terms of size, speed, power, athleticism, and so it’s tough to compare,” veteran guard Derek Fisher said. “You don’t see it anywhere else, and that’s what makes him special.”

McHale said Lin’s teammates also have to help him out by stepping in front of Westbrook’s straight-line drives to the basket from outside the 3-point line.

“His maturation into becoming an All-Star and an elite guard has really been something,” McHale said. “He plays downhill, he plays fast, he’s aggressive and he’s coming at you.”

Moving forward, one of Lin’s top priorities will be to avoid the critical turnover. He had a passed picked off on Houston’s very first possession in Game 1, sparking a Thunder fast break, then had two more giveaways during the 14-1 burst that put Oklahoma City in control to stay just before halftime.

The Thunder are counting on a stiffer test in Game 2, remembering what happened in the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers last season. In that series, Oklahoma City also opened with a 29-point blowout, but needed to score the final nine points in Game 2 to rally for a 77-75 victory.

“We had a nice win and they came back and they made it a tough, tough game on us,” Kevin Durant said. “Every game is different. We know this team is going to come out with a lot of energy on both ends of the floor and we’ve got to match it.”

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