What Jeremy Lin and Houston Rockets Showed In Tough Loss To Lakers Before 2013 NBA Playoffs; Rockets vs. Thunder Playoff TV Schedule

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First Posted: Apr 18, 2013 10:48 PM EDT

Wednesday's NBA regular season finale might not have been a playoff game for James Harden, Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets, to the common eye.

It wasn't a "win and in" situation like the Utah Jazz and the L.A. Lakers were facing coming into Wednesday's game. The Rockets had already clinched their playoff spot days before thanks to a late surge in April. But three untimely losses to Denver, Memphis and Phoenix had derailed their quest to unseat Golden State for the No.6 seed in the playoffs and threatened their tenuous hold on the No.7 seed.

If they won and Golden State lost on Wednesday, they would be propelled to No.6. A loss would guarantee that the Rockets would either face Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the veteran San Antonio Spurs or the electrifying Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the dynamic Oklahoma City Thunder, last year's Western Conference champions. Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Whether they were ready or not, their game against a motivated Lakers squad in front of a raucous crowd at the Staples Center was about as close to a playoff game as they had been in the regular season. For the young, fast and talented Rockets squad, this was their biggest test to date.

And they lost.

It was a narrow one, though. The Rockets had a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter, but cold shooting and porous defense allowed the Lakers to climb back into it, letting them grab the lead thanks to Steve Blake's 28-foot three-pointer with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter.

Still, the Rockets kept up with the Lakers. Lin found Greg Smith for a basket in the lane to cut the lead to one with 4:31 left. Harden made two timely baskets down the stretch. However, Lin missed a go-ahead three with 25 seconds left and made a costly foul on Jodie Meeks that gave the Lakers two free throws and a three-point lead.

Yet even down 90-87 with time running out, the young Rockets didn't panic. Getting the ball back with only 16 seconds left, Harden elected to pass instead of shoot, Lin got the ball in his hands, drawing two defenders...and leaving Chandler Parsons wide open. Lin made a savvy pass to the open Parsons, who drilled a line drive three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime tied at 90.

But in overtime, ultimately, the same problems the Rockets have been plagued by all season came back to bite them, the team committing costly turnovers down the stretch, not having an answer for the Lakers on defense as they gave up points in the lane to Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Meeks and cold shooting at the worst time. The result was a disappointing 99-95 loss to end what has been a regular season to celebrate for the Rockets, who return to the playoffs after three years in lottery-bound exile, yet have a date with the Thunder, who have beaten them handily twice in the regular season and are hungry to return to the Finals.

Still, the Rockets did show flashes of being able to dominate a competitive team playing at playoff-level basketball, leading for much of the game against a Dwight Howard-led Lakers team. And in the fourth quarter, when their lead evaporated and the Lakers were on the verge of victory, they kept it together to race all the way to the finish line with them.

And as for Lin, who has been on fire in April, finishing the month with 17.3 points and 6.9 assists-his best output as a Houston Rocket-fans got a glimpse of what we could expect from him in the playoffs, after missing the playoffs last year in New York thanks to a season lending left meniscus tear.

Unfortunately, Lin had a bad shooting night, hitting a mere 4-of-14 shots from the field, including a woeful 2-for-7 from three point range to finish with 12 points. However, some of the eight assists that he had during the night were fourth quarter-savers for the Rockets, none bigger than a double-teamed Lin finding Parsons wide open for that game-tying three from the top of the key to end regulation. He made some bad fouls down the stretch that in retrospect, he could have avoided, but when he saw that his shot wasn't falling, he adapted and helped his team in other ways.

Like life, basketball is very much a "live and learn" process. Lin struggled in the first half of the season, but as he grew more comfortable and understood how to play the Rockets' style of up-tempo basketball, he got better and he made the most of it with two solid finals months of play in March and April. Harden has evolved from a sub into a superstar in one season. And the young and untested Rockets have shown that they have the firepower and the guts to keep it together in a close game with high stakes.

Overall, on paper, the Thunder have a better team and more weapons in their arsenal than Houston, but with a little more focus on defense in the playoffs and some patience on creating the shots in crunch time, the Rockets have the potential to be an upset team. It wouldn't be the first time that an eighth seed has upset a No.1 seed, either; Dikembe Mutumbo's Denver Nuggets shocked the heavily favored Seattle SuperSonics in 1994, and a banged up, but athletic Knicks squad with Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston stunned the NBA title-favorite Miami Heat in 1999.

Harden, Lin and the Rockets have grown over the last 82 games. It's no guarantee that the Rockets, the second highest-scoring team in the NBA (106.0 points per game, only one-tenth behind Denver) can pull off the unthinkable and beat the overwhelmingly-favored Thunder, but if they play that series with the gumption they showed in the last minute of Wednesday's game, Oklahoma City is in for one heck of a fight.

No.1 Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. No.8 Houston Rockets (45-37)

Game 1 -- Sun., April 21, Houston at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m., TNT

Game 2 -- Wed, April 24, Houston at Oklahoma City, 7 p.m., TNT

Game 3 -- Sat., April 27, Oklahoma City at Houston, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 4 -- Mon., April 29, Oklahoma City at Houston, TBD, TNT

Game 5* -- Wed. May 1, Houston at Oklahoma City, TBD 
Game 6* -- Fri., May 3, Oklahoma City at Houston, TBD 
Game 7* -- Sun., May 5, Houston at Oklahoma City, TBD  

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