Jeremy Lin, James Harden

At his best, James Harden makes the Houston Rockets a title contender. The problem is that his efficient and rather composed performance against the New York Knicks isn’t something the Houston Rockets get from him every night. Jeremy Lin, coming off the bench again, was finally happy with the kind of basketball he saw from his team and especially star teammate, but is it something he can count on happening again?

Harden led the way for the Rockets in their 109-106 win over the New York Knicks, proving to be different in a couple of ways from their recent close losses. Harden scored 36 points while shooting a 9-of-17. He still took some tough shots and had a hard time giving up the ball, but he made smarter decisions than usual, not to mention being very hard to stop on the way to the basket, getting 16-of-18 from the foul line. He also fouled Carmelo Anthony early so Anthony’s three-point shot didn’t count, something the Rockets (and generally NBA head coaches) tend to avoid out of some weird code that says not to foul.

It seems like that has happened a lot to us lately. Last-second shots. The first two times you know we didn’t foul and they made big 3s. Tonight a foul and they still made a big 3.

Lin started off the bench again, but Kevin McHale did give him more minutes than Patrick Beverley. Beverley played 27 minutes, scoring 5 points, and it’s really hard to understand what a player of his caliber is doing in the starting lineup of a team that wants to do more than they did in the playoffs last year.

Lin spent 30 minutes on the floor, scoring 21 points. He is averaging 28.7 points per game over the last three, although his outside shooting (only 1-of-6 from beyond the arc) has usually been a bit more on target this season. Lin is part of the general Houston problem of bad perimeter defense, but there’s no doubt they’re a better basektball team offensively and in general when he’s on the floor.

We played more as a team today. We really moved the ball, shared the ball. We played really unselfish today and we also did what we needed to do defensively.

Dwight Howard

And that’s the key for the Rockets offensively. James Harden can play a little bit more like a player who’s part of a team and not just someone looking for his own personal glory, he just doesn’t want to most of the time. The Rockets are a better team when the ball moves around, because it enables Jeremy Lin to be a lot more dangerous, and gets someone as important as Chandler Parsons a lot more involved, scoring 22 points, averaging 20.2 over the last five games.

It might mean that Dwight Howard gets less touches on the ball (7 points, 1-of-5 from the field), but the Rockets didn’t need points from him when they added him. Improved rebounding, improved defense, especially now that Omer Asik is trying to force his way into a trade, not playing because of “mysterious illness” called feeling insulted about becoming a bench player.

At 6-4, the Rockets are on the verge of putting some pieces together and starting to play like a contender should. It’ll only happen if Kevin McHale sets his house in order, which means giving Lin the minutes he deserves and keeping Harden on a shorter leash, if he’s capable of that. One win with Harden playing like a team-player doesn’t mean he’s changed for good.

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