Jeremy Lin and James Harden: Can They Survive the Tough March Schedule for the Rockets?
On Wednesday, the Houston Rockets (33-28) will play the Dallas Mavericks, the first of a 12-game schedule they face in the month of March with 21 games left in the NBA season.
That's nearly two-thirds of their remaining NBA schedule left as Jeremy Lin, James Harden and the Rockets, seeded seventh in the West, try to build some momentum as they fight for playoff positioning, only a game behind No.6-seeded Golden State.
The problem? Seven of those games come against teams with not only an above-.500 record, but playoff seeded teams at the time.
It's the grinder part of the schedule, the most difficult part down the stretch as the Rockets play teams loaded with deadly offense and/or All-Star-caliber talent.
This Friday, they play Golden State (34-27) who are the sixth seed in the West and one of Houston's rivals for playoff seeding, a team that features the punishing All-Star forward David Lee and the sensational point guard Stephen Curry (who critics say should have been an All-Star this season.)
After that, the Rockets will get easier games against lowly Phoenix and struggling Minnesota, but then they match up against Golden State again for a St. Patrick's Day matchup March 17. Then three nights later on March 20, the Rockets play their most imminent threat, the No.8-seeded Utah Jazz (32-28) led by the talented trio of Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Al Jefferson (averaging 17.7 points this season.)
They can expect a fight because it's a safe bet Utah wants no part of Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs or Kevin Durant and the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder when the playoffs begin in April.
Next, Lin and Harden will heading up against the ever-lethal Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 22, then close out the month with games against the team with the NBA's best record in San Antonio (47-14)--which the Rockets have yet to beat in three meetings this year-followed by the defensively tough and well-balanced Indiana Pacers (38-22, No.2 in the East), the team with the lowest points allowed for opponents in the Memphis Grizzlies (39-19) and end the month on March 30 with a home game against the "Lob City" duo of All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leading the L.A. Clippers (43-16).
All in all, the Rockets are in for a few battles this March. And with the now-surging L.A. Lakers (30-30) only 2.5 games behind Houston, the Rockets can ill-afford to pick March to go on a late-season slump; that could either lower their seeding to the eighth seed again or, worse, knock them out of playoff contention.
Needless to say, this will be the biggest test that the young and talented Rockets, with the league's highest-scoring offense (107.0 points per game) and their backcourt of All-Star Harden and the streaky fan favorite Lin, will have faced all season.
The question is: are they up to it?
Harden knows what it's like to go deep in the playoffs. He is barely one season removed from being part of the OKC team with Durant and Russell Westbrook that beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals to reach the NBA Finals. Backup guard James Anderson also went to the Western Finals last year, playing with the Spurs. Omer Asik also went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11 with the Bulls, and Carlos Delfino went deep in the playoffs with Detroit in 2006-07.
Lin, however, has never played in the playoffs, having missed the first round elimination of his ex-team the Knicks last season in the first round of the playoffs thanks to season-ending leg surgery he underwent before the playoffs. And most of the other Rockets have never been as deep as Harden, Asik, Anderson and Delfino were, if they even made the playoffs at all.
Youth is normally one of the Rockets' best weapons in the league, but unfortunately, making a push for the playoffs takes a cool head under pressure and a knowledge of when to turn it up when the team needs it most. It is the by-at-large inexperience of Houston in this case that could be their undoing.
If Houston is going to get over that hump en route to an easier April and still be in playoff contention, they are going to have to grow up in a hurry. That means playing better on defense, limiting the amount of team turnovers and figuring out how to adjust when some of these teams force the Rockets into playing a half-court game or relying on a three-ball-which is a dangerous prospect to face.
Smooth sailing could lie await in April-but that will be determined by how well Harden and Lin can navigate the stormy waters of March basketball.