There’s no getting around it: The Houston Rockets are the best team in the NBA since New Year’s, and their 112-86 win over the Indiana Pacers, with another excellent performance from James Harden and Dwight Howard while Jeremy Lin made the most of the limited minutes he’s been getting.
The Pacers are in a funk, falling to 46-16, meaning the Miami Heat are getting awfully close, losing their last three and winning only six of their last 10. However, the real story here is Houston, a team that is finding their best way of playing thanks to their star player who seems to be getting over his selfish tendencies and is playing with the energy and focus they need from who is rightfully so called their best player.
Harden finished with 28 points, shooting 10-of-17 from the field, doing a great job in erasing his and his team’s awful performance from December, when they were beaten by 33 points in Indianapolis. It came down to the third quarter, in which Harden played at a pace we’ve never seen him in before, matching the Pacers’ entire scoring output in those 12 minutes with 16 points, making the most of the four turnovers, including finishing off a fast break with a thunderous one-handed slam.
Harden spoke about simply playing faster and not letting the Pacers settle in to their defensive positions. That’s been a big problem of his earlier this season – holding on too much to the ball and playing to the end of the shot clock before setting himself or a teammate up with a very difficult shot. However, things and times are a changing, and it seems that Harden is finally playing like the Rockets need him to, while Patrick Beverley, wearing a protective mask on his face, provides sidekick material.
It’s doesn’t really matter arguing about whether or not Jeremy Lin would do more with the minutes Beverley is in. The Rockets have won four in a row, six of their last seven and 14 of their last 16 games, most of that coming while Jeremy Lin has been slowly reduced into a bench player with 15-20 minutes a night. The difference this time was him looking a lot more aggressive and confident with the ball during the minutes he did get (only 16). He scored 11 points on 4-of-5 from the field, adding 3 assists, and his push in the second quarter helped the Rockets build an early lead that was later squadered before the third quarter eruption.
Dwight Howard is erasing all the critical things said about him with another excellent game on both ends of the floor. His pick & rolls with Parsons and the rest made Hibbert move away from the basket each time, finishing with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists, looking like the guy the Lakers dreamed of having last season.
The Rockets are achieving the first goal set for them early this season: Look like a team that contend for the West. They have the Spurs’ numbers this year and have beaten the Thunder. They might have failed to get that stretch 4 Morey was after, but they suddenly have Asik back as a decent backup center, James Harden playing responsibly and a team deep enough in most positions to handle a long playoff.
Jeremy Lin still deserves more minutes, but it’s come to the point that it doesn’t really matter how well or how much better than Patrick Beverley he is; Kevin McHale has made up his mind about how many minutes each player should get, and as long as his team is winning like this, it’s hard to argue with what he’s been doing.