As point guard Jeremy Lin makes an early push for Sixth Man of the Year honors, the upstart Charlotte Hornets (15-11) have crashed the top of the Eastern Conference and look poised to make a serious run at the postseason.
Serving as the leader of the NBA’s third highest-scoring bench, the 27-year-old has found the right mix of consistent play and shooting as part of Charlotte’s second unit. As a result, the team has risen to No. 7 in the conference.
Lin’s averaging 11.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.1 assists with a 43.0 success rate from the field, a few ticks better than his inconsistent run with the Los Angeles Lakers last season. Charlotte’s bench has responded under his leadership with 39.8 points and 8.3 assists and 44.6 shooting this season.
The former Knick and Rocket’s effect on a squad that finished eight games below .500 and five games back of the East’s final playoff spot last season was most evident in the Hornets 109-99 overtime victory over fellow riser Toronto last week.
Playing a game-high 47 minutes in just his second start of the season in place of injured wing Nicolas Batum, Lin scorched the Raptors' fourth-ranked defense for 35 points, five rebounds, and five assists while going 13-for-22 from the floor and blocking two shots. It was his most pronounced scoring surge since he dropped 29 points on the Philadelphia 76ers in March on 10-of-16 shooting.
Lin would return to the bench and follow up with 15 points and a season-high seven assists and six rebounds in Charlotte’s narrow 109-101 loss to Toronto two nights later.
Lin’s play, and that of fellow bench combo guard Jeremy Lamb, has also allowed Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford to relieve some of the scoring pressure off Kemba Walker, who has run the offense the last four seasons. The fourth-year guard is still averaging 34 minutes a game, but with Lin at times playing the off-guard Walker’s been far more efficient, raising his shooting percentage from 38.5 overall last season to 44.0 this year and his long-range accuracy jumping to 35.8 from 30.4.
And Lin is relishing his new role, and fully understands the impact he’s had on Walker and center Al Jefferson.
"That's what I wanted to do for a long time," Lin told reporters after the victory over Toronto. "I saw how much (being the playmaker) took out of Al (Jefferson) and Kemba. But I couldn't have done it without (Walker), and he couldn't have done it without me. He helps me out just as much as I hope I can help him."
Clifford boasted of Lin's progress in dribbling with either hand to the Charlotte Observer, and complimented Lin for his conditioning and pick-and-roll defense -- two of Lin's perceived weaknesses in New York, Houston and L.A.
Walker also offered praise for his new teammate. The 25-year-old has yet to win a playoff game in his career, but with Lin's ability to ease the scoring burden and provide key passes, Walker may finally have the chance to enjoy some postseason success.
“When they deny me the basketball (as the Raptors did repeatedly Thursday), he can come and make plays. You can see it in the numbers; he played extremely well,” Walker said. “Hopefully he can continue to be really, really, really good like tonight.”