Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, right, has been having his share of defensive struggles lately. (Photo : Reuters)
As much as Jeremy Lin's offense has been celebrated both last season and in the current one, his defense has long been a point of contention.
It was a criticism that hounded him in New York, even when his play was being celebrated for helping to lift the Knicks out of a losing record and back into playoff contention. And even with a change of scenery from the Big Apple to Space City, the question of his defense continues to be raised.
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The Rockets now on a four-game losing streak after just coming off winning 10 of 12 games, giving up 103.7 points over that stretch. Up and down the roster, defense continues to be an issue, the Rockets unable to keep up with opponents in transition despite the added advantage of their youthful legs.
For Lin, by the numbers, he's actually statistically improving. The league's third-placed leader in steals with 2.08 picks per game, Lin is actually ranked third in defensive plays--the combination of steals, blocks and drawn charges per game--among point guards (2.76 per game), just behind L.A. Clippers superstar Chris Paul, the league leader in steals, and Mike Conley of the defensively-sound Memphis Grizzlies (second in the NBA in fewest points allowed with 90.0 points per game), according to Hoopdata.com.
Yet, over the last two weeks, opponents have been racking up points against Lin while he's played.
Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook scored 28 points and 8 assists on Dec. 29, a game where Lin played 24 minutes while Westbrook played 30. Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings scored 16 points, 7 assists on the Rockets on Jan. 4. while Lin played 29 minutes. While Lin scored 20 points in 38 minutes on Jan. 5 against Cleveland, Kyrie Irving had a field day for Cleveland with 30 Points.
Greivis Vasquez scored 17 points and 11 assists on Jan. 9, while Lin played for 42 minutes. Then it was Jrue Holiday scoring 30 points on Saturday, another game where Lin played 39 minutes. And on Tuesday, Eric Bledsoe scored 19 points and 8 assists for the Clippers while Lin, after coming off an ankle sprain the previous day, saw 35 minutes of action.
It's not a matter of intensity. Lin closely guarded Irving on many instances, for example. He certainly seems to be giving effort on the defensive side.
However, Lin seems to be having trouble coming off of defensive screens in some of the games where Houston opponents create paths for point guards. And against some of the more explosive offensive point guards, such as Westbrook and Irving, Lin finds himself getting beaten by sheer speed.
Yet, Lin has acknowledged that there is a need for himself and the team as a whole to get better on defense.
"I'd say getting back to our shell defense, basically making sure the weakside is there," he told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday when asked what area the team needs to work most on. "We gave up a lot of layups and easy things like that. We'd rather have teams forced to kick it out or shoot a 3 or a contested 2, but not a layup. (The Clippers) love finishing at the rim. That's why [the Clippers game] is going to be a huge weakside defense game.
"Being able to neutralize their athleticism by being in the right place at the right time and being really team-oriented on defense in terms of having all five guys move weakside and strong side. And being high energy, just getting back to the way we played before we went on the road," he added.
Neither Lin nor the Rockets have had much time to practice, either, something that coach Kevin McHale has alluded to earlier this week. And, as the old adage goes, the only way to get better at anything is practice, practice, practice.
Lin has more upsides on defense than his detractors claim, and his steals numbers show that. And at age 24, he has the time to build himself into perhaps even a lockdown defender. But he's going to have to use his natural speed and athleticism to keep up with rival point guards and get around those screens.
And he'll have to do a better job at being able to read an opponent's moves and anticipate where they're heading and what they're doing.
However, those adjustments don't just happen overnight. They take time, patience and a real hard look at all of those games and issues.
Over time, it is likely that Lin get a handle for defensive game plans and strategies of his own. Time builds experience, after all. But if the Rockets are going to get their momentum back soon, Lin will need to find a way to prevent other point guards from getting offensive traction against Houston.