Are the Houston Rockets' James Harden, far left, and Jeremy Lin, second from left, better equipped to make a run at the NBA playoffs than the Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant-led L.A. Lakers? (Photo : Reuters)
It's almost inconceivable that after an off season of huge moves for the L.A. Lakers, with only 30 or so games left in the NBA 2012-13 season, the playoff picture in the Western Conference would be shaped up like this.
With the Houston Rockets (32-28) not only with a better record than the Lakers (29-30) but with the opportunity to make the NBA playoffs while the struggling Lakers sit this one out.
If one had made this prediction earlier prior to the season opener, such a forecast would be laughed at. Long and loudly.Yet, after roughly 60 games in the NBA regular season, that's where we stand right now.
The Rockets started their off season making good--but not huge, moves-nabbing Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in free agency and then, in a bombshell, swapping Kevin Martin and other players with Oklahoma City for Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, three of the fundamental blocks for the foundation of their young, fast and athletic team.
Meanwhile, with plenty of cash to burn, the Lakers had the biggest free agent summer of them all, signed Steve Nash, a future Hall of Famer with plenty of juice left in the tank, to a three-year deal while the Lakers shipped center Andrew Bynum out to Philadelphia in a four-team deal that saw multiple-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard--widely considered to be the premier center in the NBA-put on the purple-and-gold uniform for L.A. Paired with the talented Pau Gasol and superstar Kobe Bryant, Howard and Nash were supposed to help the Lakers put it all together, knock off Oklahoma City and San Antonio and meet the Miami Heat in a dream NBA Finals match in June.
So, what happened?
Well, under the tutelage of former Celtics legend Kevin McHale and using their youth and athleticism to their advantage, the Rockets have torched opponents with a blitzkrieg-like, run-and-gun, relentless pick-and-roll offense that has generated 106.7 points per game, second highest in the NBA and only a tenth behind the Western Conference champs OKC.
Harden has evolved into one of the NBA's dominant scorers, a budding superstar now that he calls the shots on his team. Lin hasn't reproduced "Linsanity" from New York last season, but has been learning from his highs and lows--en rout to averaging 12.6 points and 6.2 assists--as the floor general for one of the most high-octane scoring machines in the NBA today. Together, they've formed a one-two punch in which Harden makes the plays and Lin has kept the offense running smooth and fast by setting players up for scoring plays with his team-leading 6.2 assists.
They've beaten playoff teams such as OKC, New York, Memphis, Boston, Utah, Golden State and Brooklyn.
Even Dwayne Wade, after the defending champion Miami Heat narrowly beat the Rockets 114-108 on Feb. 6, had to tip his hat to the young Rockets.
"They're one of the toughest teams to guard," Wade said.
And the Lakers? They've struggled. They've floundered. With too many glitches, they couldn't make it work using Mike Brown's pass-heavy Princeton offense, leading to Brown being fired as head coach after only five games. With an injury-prone team on aging legs, they're just too old to run under Mike D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offense, leading the Lakers to a 28-25 record since that time, 2.5 games behind the Rockets for the final playoff spot. And to top it off, Bryant and Howard spent a good part of the season making headlines with word of their infighting and none-too-subtle jabs at one another.
As of late, the Lakers have put together a small little run, having won six of their last 10 games as Bryant issued a proclamation shortly after the break that the Lakers would make the playoffs.
"It's not a question of if we make the playoffs," Bryant said in last week's Sports Illustrated. "We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone - Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whoever. I have zero nervousness about that."
One would be shortsighted to expect anything less of Bryant. He's used to winning, as he should be. Used to excellence. Five world titles and seven NBA Finals appearances will do that to a player of Kobe's caliber.
But given the state of the Lakers, one could wonder if he's a little envious of the cohesion that Houston has been enjoying right now. In contrast to Howard and Bryant sniping at each other through the press, it's all peace and love between Harden and Lin, the Rockets' two most important players.
Lin has not once complained about getting fewer shots than Harden--which he does, Harden getting 17.4 shot attempts this season compared to Lin's 10.6 field goal attempts--only talking about how much the team has improved this season, while Harden praised Lin's talent, commending him on leading by example as Lin is "making shots, making plays. He's doing everything,"
Rockets forward Chandler Parsons told the Houston Chronicle this week that he "could care less about the Lakers," adding that the Rockets were in control of their own destiny right now. To that end, Parsons is right. The Rockets are starting to work out the glitches in their system after 59 games as a team. They're clicking and that cohesion, combined with youth and talent and a noticeable chemistry on the court, might even help them pass Utah or Denver to climb higher in the playoff standings.
Yet, a lot can happen over the next seven weeks of regular season action left. The Lakers have a lot of ground to make up, but as their recent string of victories suggests, they are showing signs of making a serious run. And the Rockets still have a tough schedule with opponents like Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, Golden State, Indiana and the L.A. Clippers still ahead.
Both the Rockets and the Lakers want to be playing basketball into May and both still have the talent to do it. Ultimately, though, if the eight and final seed of the West playoff bracket does come down to the Rockets and the Lakers, it's going to come down to two things-which team can work together the best and build the most momentum in the final weeks of play. And from the looks of things right now, in at least the teamwork aspect, it's "Advantage: Rockets."