There’s no question that the arrival of James Harden has turned the Houston Rockets into more than just a playoff contender, but a nationally relevant team once again. Jeremy Lin is playing second fiddle, but with every game that goes by, it looks like he’s getting better and better in his new role.
Harden has had bigger nights for the Rockets in terms of scoring, but despite scoring “only” 31 points, it was probably his best game. We all knew the Rockets can score, leading the NBA with 105.4 points per game. But to do it so easily against the best defense in the NBA? That had to be something special from the Rockets’ best player.
What makes the Grizzlies defense so good is their discipline and quick reaction to their own mistakes on offense. A turnover or a bad rebounding situation doesn’t find them unprepared back on defense. All five players rush back to close down the lanes and the perimeter. Kevin McHale simply asked Harden and Lin to push the ball quicker than usual, and for Harden to simply take advantage of every little hole he sees in the armor.
The result? 53.7% from the field, 42.9% from beyond the arc, 33 fast break points compared to the measly 3 by the Memphis Grizzlies (who also turned the ball over 19 times) and going to the line 26 times. The Rockets always play fast basketball, or always attempt to. This time it was fast, aggressive, efficient and smart. It was the first time since the season opener that anyone scored 100 points or more against the Grizzlies. They were simply caught and beat out of their element, playing the kind of basketball that doesn’t suit them.
Harden is an excellent shooter, but his strength and quickness make him even more dangerous when driving to the basket. Having more confidence in Jeremy Lin’s ability to do the right thing when he dishes the ball to him on the outside, plus the surprising play of guys like Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith this season makes Harden very confident when cutting to the inside. He simply began plays before everyone, including his own teammates were ready. It resulted in 31 points, 8 assists, 9-13 from the field and 12-13 from the line. The Grizzlies, also occupied with the presence of Omer Asik in the paint, simply had no answer to the tempo James Harden inflicted on the game.
And then there’s Lin, who had a season high 11 assists. The Rockets are good even without him playing this well, but despite his bad night from the outside (he’s just not a catch and shoot kind of player), he didn’t let it affect his decision making. He simply kept the pace and passing game moving very quickly, and when he gets to think and play like a point guard instead of a shooting guard looking for spots to take shots from, he’s a much better player.
Omer Asik had yet another double double (14 points, 12 rebounds) while Marcus Morris did a very good job in the lineup (16 points) instead of Patrick Patterson. But the Rockets are an exciting team to watch because of their backcourt. The combination between Lin and Harden, meaning’s Lin’s ability to adjust to not being the primary ball handler and James Harden realizing when to share the focus with his teammate, has the potential of making the Rockets a bit more than simply a borderline postseason team.