Seven years ago, Toronto Raptor Jeremy Lin’s job was to win games. Now he enters games that are already won. Basketball is strange that way
With less than 30 seconds remaining in the third game of the NBA Finals, the biggest game that he had ever been a part of, Jeremy Lin, a hero and a symbol and now something of an afterthought, dribbled over halfway, paused then watched as the court opened up in front of him.
Twenty seconds. 19. 18. The clock ticked down.
Seven years ago, during the strange, almost hallucinatory run that made him famous, Lin was in a similar situation. Playing against his current team, in Toronto, with time winding down, he dribbled past half court. He motioned his teammates back toward the baseline. He stood alone in front of his defender. He rose up into his imperfect jump shot, a shot that has come and gone for him in his imperfect career, and hit an outrageous three pointer to win the game.
I was in the arena that night. I’ve seen many Raptors games live. I’ve never quite seen anything like the reaction to that shot. Raptors fans were delirious. A man standing next to me bounced and swayed and yelled ‘I’m buying a jersey right now! I’m buying a Lin jersey right now!”
For that brief stretch in 2012, when he played for the New York Knicks, Lin was a star like no other in the league. He could go into an opposing arena, full of lunatic local fans, and walk out a hero. He was the biggest story in the game. But then he hurt his knee. He left New York. He bounced around and he ended up, this spring, with a bench role on the Raptors.
On Wednesday, in the NBA finals, Lin dribbled and dribbled as time wound down. He didn’t shoot. He let the shot clock expire; he picked up the ball, handed it to a referee, and walked off the court.
Lin was only in the game Wednesday because the game was already over. The Raptors had an insurmountable lead by the time he checked in with less a minute to play. He was there to fill time, to eat 51 seconds while the starters and the other rotation guards got a head start on the rest they’ll need for Friday’s game.
Seven years ago, Lin’s job was to win games. Now he enters games that are already won. That’s basketball. It’s strange that way. It doesn’t care about who you used to be.
When we talk about high-end sports, we tend to focus on the drive and the talent and the incredible hard work it takes to get to the top. That makes sense. All of that is very real. I’ve watched Steph Curry warm up twice in these finals. Everything he does on court that seems like an accident, every incredible, seemingly improvised, moment — all the spins and look-off passes, the brilliant cutting and orbital shots — are practised. He drills them and drills them until he can make them appear, as if from nothing, in a game.
So it isn’t that the work and the gifts aren’t real. They are. But they do obscure sometimes how random so much of sport can be, how much of it for the individual athletes, can rely on chance and strange turns. Three months ago, Andrew Bogut was putting up 11 points a game for the Sydney Kings in Australia’s National Basketball League. On Wednesday, he played 21 minutes of surprisingly effective post defence against the Raptors Marc Gasol.
The Warriors traded Bogut three years ago to make room for Kevin Durant. They re-signed him before the playoffs this year for deep bench cover. Then starting centre DeMarcus Cousins got hurt. Kevin Durant got hurt. And in game two of the finals, backup centre Kevon Looney suffered an injury to a part of the body — the first costal cartilage — that I, a man who has had a body for 37 years, had no idea was a thing.
Bogut was all but retired in Australia. He’s 34. Nine hundred times out of about nine hundred and one, he’d be playing the Lin role for the Warriors this spring, cheering and working out, maybe mopping up a few minutes at the end. Instead, he’s out there, taking lobs and putting his big body in the way. That’s basketball. It’s a hell of a thing.
It’s why these finals, choppy and injury-struck though they’ve been, have also been the best in years. Sports are like stories. They rely on narrative tension to succeed. And for the past three years, ever since the Warriors signed Durant, the NBA playoffs have been pretty tension-free.
Without Durant, who is not expected to play Friday, but may return next week, the Warriors are still excellent, but they’re mortal, too. They could lose. They might win. Nothing seems inevitable now. The random chances matter. No one can be sure where they will lead.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019