Houston Rockets guards Jeremy Lin, second from left, and James Harden, far right, looked impressive together against the Thunder Wednesday. But was it a flash in the pan, or a sign of things to come for the Rockets? (Photo : Reuters)
For 48 minutes, the Houston Rockets has what they were looking for Wednesday night.
Even in the aftermath of major trades and fresh off several days of inactivity from the NBA All-Star break, for one night, the Rockets had the team they had envisioned getting when they signed Jeremy Lin and traded for sixth man-turned-All-Star James Harden to multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts.
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Even down 14 points in the fourth quarter against an Oklahoma City Thunder squad armed with the leading scorer in the NBA in Kevin Durant, an All-Star point guard in Russell Westbrook and an array of weapons--who had already beaten them twice this season--the new-look Rockets had one of their finest moments of the season so far.
Behind Harden's career-high 46 points and 29 points and eight assists from Lin-the explosive young backcourt combining for a whopping 75 points-the Rockets beat the defending Western Conference champion Thunder 122-119.
Let that sink in for a second.
This is a team that is supposed to be back in the NBA Finals this year. Who is supposed to be slugging it out with, in all likelihood, LeBron James and the Miami Heat in a rematch for the ages in June. Who have two of the best players at their position in Durant and Westbrook and one of the deepest teams in the league. And the Rockets beat them.
And in large part, it's because the backcourt offense of Lin and Harden that have had so many stop-and-start moments through the season-meshing together well one moment, then not looking so good the next-came together and looked like a well-oiled engine that can power the Ferrari-like offense of the Rockets' league-leading offense that scores 106.4 points on opponents a game.
When Harden and Lin are both firing on all cylinders, they become a frighteningly overwhelming team on offense. They have the Rockets sprinting up and down the court at full speed with young legs and loads of athleticism, able to run teams ragged off the pick-and-roll or the fast break.
But when they're off, so are the Rockets.
Harden will get the lion's share of the shots, as he should, but if he has a night where he's off-like the four game stretch when he was shooting 20-for-80, a mere 25 percent shooting, from Jan. 16 through Jan. 21 while the Rockets were losing seven straight games-there isn't a player yet that has stepped up to consistently fill that void and step up, or even step up when Harden is hot, as he was Wednesday night against the Thunder.
Lin has certainly not been that guy, well, not on a consistent basis.
Case in point, during that same four-game stretch that Harden went cold shooting, Lin shot a combined 14-for-37 from the field, 37 percent over those January games. He started out hot with 19 points against Dallas on Jan. 16, but then scored only 10 points the next game against the Pacers on Jan. 18, then 12 against Minnesota Jan. 19 and fizzled to a mere 4-point night against the Charlotte Bobcats, a dismal team, on Jan. 21.
Through the first half, inconsistency has been plaguing Lin. His shooting has been streaky, his scoring sporadic and he has sometimes looked like a player who was struggling to understand what his role in this new young team is.
Sometimes, he'll seem like the sensational player fans fell in love with in New York last February, when he was scoring at an incredible rate that sparked the "Linsanity" phenomenon. Other times, he'll seem like a good, or decent point guard, but not much else. And other times, he'll be dreadful.
That is why Thursday's game was so key. At the halfway point of the 2012-13 season, Lin and Harden looked like they were finally clicking on that Batman-Robin type chemistry that the Rockets need.
Harden dominated the fourth quarter of that game, almost single-handedly taking the Rockets back from a 14-point deficit. But it was Lin who provided a go-ahead three pointer, set up by a pass chain started by Harden, with 1:47 to go in the fourth that put Houston ahead for good.
And consider this-Harden took 19 shots in the game, hitting 14 of them and still wound up with 46 points. Lin actually took more shots than Harden, 22 field goal attempts, and hit 12 of them including 3-of-5 from three-point range.
The Rockets traded away a key scorer in Patrick Patterson to get Thomas Robinson, a player that they have no solid idea of what he can evolve into. Chandler Parsons is a solid player and scorer, but he's not the kind of player that you can expect to be the No. 2 option that can strike fear in an opponent's heart.
Lin can; he has the rep behind him. Opponents know how dangerous he can be when he's at his best. But to be among the best, he must stay consistently shooting. He still finds a way to create open shots for his teammates and get his five to eight assists per night because that's what starting point guards in the NBA are supposed to do, but now that Lin's gotten to know the Rockets a little better in the last four to five months, Lin will have to step it up a notch on offense to become the No. 2 option on offense.
The more consistent he can be, the more likely Harden will be willing to try and find Lin with a pass late in the game instead of trying to be an offensive Superman night in and night out. That's a tiring task to ask of players, even the superstars like Harden.
And the more consistent Lin becomes, the more Houston's backcourt can take the next step and turn into one of the truly feared guard tandems in the game. Lin and Harden have talent, explosiveness and youth on their side. But to get the Rockets to the NBA Playoffs, they're going to need three other elements when they play together-consistency, chemistry and, more importantly, trust.