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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Jeremy Lin (#7) of the Charlotte Hornets shoots past Miles Plumlee of the Milwaukee Bucks during a National Basketball Association (NBA) game in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in this March 26, 2016 file photo. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra motions to his team during an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland, Oregon, in this April 2, 2016 file photo. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #12 (June 20, 2016), page 8.

Lin’s Hornets on the rise, Spoelstra’s Heat on the decline

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Asian-American talent in the National Basketball Association (NBA) seems headed in two different directions. Jeremy Lin led the rising Charlotte Hornets to their first playoff win in 14 years, though they eventually fell in the first round. Coach Erik Spoelstra led the team that defeated them, the Miami Heat, who lost in the second round to the Toronto Raptors. Even though they exited the playoffs sooner, the Hornets felt triumphant, while Spoelstra and the Heat were disappointed.

Spoelstra, the NBA’s first Filipino-American head coach, felt disappointed only because he had previously reached dizzying heights. From 2010 through 2014, Spoelstra had one of the best lineups in league history, with point guard Dwyane Wade, power forward Chris Bosh, and forward LeBron James.

James, considered one of the best players ever, was key to the Heat’s success, helping them reach four straight NBA Finals, winning two. But James opted out of the final year of his contract to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Heat hasn’t been the same since. In 2015, injuries hammered the team, which lost Bosh down the stretch, and Miami missed the playoffs for the first time since Spoelstra became head coach.

This season, the Heat added point guard Goran Dragic and rookie small forward Justise Winslow, while second-year center Hassan Whiteside led the NBA in blocks. The team again lost Bosh down the stretch, but Miami still finished first in the Southeast Division, securing the Eastern Conference’s third playoff seed.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Heat faced the Charlotte Hornets, whose surge in the second half of the season was fuelled by Chinese-American point guard Jeremy Lin. Lin exploded onto the NBA scene in 2012 with the New York Knicks, creating the "Linsanity" phenomenon and its "Lin" puns for his ability to take over the game in the fourth quarter.

After that successful breakout, Lin was signed by the Houston Rockets, where he slipped from starter to reserve before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he remained on the bench. Once his contract was up, Lin inked a two-year deal with Charlotte worth far less than his previous contract with the Rockets. Amid eroding offensive numbers, Lin was now seen as a bench player to boost Charlotte’s second-team offense.

Lin served well in this role, occasionally starting before catching fire in the second half of the season. In March, he scored 29 points to lead Charlotte to a 23-point comeback against the San Antonio Spurs, and then poured in 25 points three weeks later to help the Hornets defeat the Boston Celtics in the Garden.

But Lin really shone in the playoffs against Miami. After Charlotte lost the first two games in the series, Lin dropped 18 points on the Heat in Game 3, giving the Hornets its first playoff win since 2002. He followed this up with a 21-point performance in Game 4, tying his best playoff performance ever, and the 89-85 win by the Hornets evened the series at two apiece heading back to Miami.

The home team had won each of the first four games, and the Heat had won its home games in the series by an average of 22 points. So everyone expected Spoelstra to rally Miami to a Game 5 victory. Instead, Lin electrified off the bench again, scoring 14, with six rebounds and a team-high seven assists. His effort helped Charlotte outscore the Heat 25-17 in the fourth quarter to win Game 5, 90-88.

The Hornets headed back home for Game 6, ready to win their first playoff series since 2002. But Spoelstra and Miami stifled Courtney Lee and Marvin Williams, who had combined for 31 points in Game 5. In Game 6, Lee scored just two points and Williams was shut out entirely, while Lin scored only eight points, adding one assist and one rebound.

For their part, the Heat put together a true team effort, with five players scoring in double digits. Their 97-90 win sent the series back to Miami for a crucial Game 7. On their home court, the Heat outscored the Hornets 29-18 in the first quarter and never looked back. They held the lead throughout, once again sharing double-digit scoring among five players, while holding Lin in check with just nine points.

"I think our basketball team needed to go through that," said Spoelstra after the Heat’s victory, "to be pushed and find a different level which we showed in the last two games." But the series wore down the Heat before its gruelling second-round contest against the Toronto Raptors, who also took seven games to defeat the Pacers, winning their first playoff series victory since 2001.

The Heat and Raptors split the first four games, three of which went into overtime. Toronto took the crucial Game 5, 99-91, at home, but Miami won Game 6, 103-91, setting up yet another Game 7 for the two battle-worn teams. With the home-court advantage, the Raptors leaned hard on their backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who scored 35 and 28, respectively. Their center, Bismack Biyombo, scored 17 and dominated the glass, dragging down 16 rebounds.

Spoelstra and Miami’s backcourt could not respond, as Wade and Dragic combined for just 32 points on 12-for-30 shooting. Though the game stayed close for the first three quarters, Toronto pulled away in the final frame, outscoring Miami 30-11. Spoelstra said after the game, "Their most aggressive, most energetic burst was at the beginning of that fourth quarter, and they put it away."

Looking ahead to next season, Lin should remain a valuable bench player who will keep the Hornets on the rise. Spoelstra and the Heat, on the other hand, face a crossroads. They are still under contract to the fragile Bosh, while starters Wade, Whiteside, and Luol Deng are all free agents. They could retain their core or makes some trades and shift in a whole new direction. Asian-American sports fans will be anxious to see if their favorite coach can match the trajectory of their favorite player.

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