Houston Rockets: How Jeremy Lin And James Harden Can Co-Exist
Going into this season, the Rockets were probably the team we knew the least about. Just a few days before opening night, they traded for James Harden, who many expected would be an elite player. Still, there was no way of knowing he would do when given a starting role, and no way of knowing how he would gel with Jeremy Lin, who had been the Rockets biggest offseason acquisition prior to the Harden trade.
For the first quarter of the year, Harden has more than lived up to the hype, averaging over 25 points per game. Unfortunately, the prognosis for Lin hasn’t been so encouraging. he’s struggled to score, averaging only 11.3 points a night, and his game has lacked the competitive fire that was so essential during the days of Linsanity. He hasn’t been terrible, but he’s definitely been underwhelming.
In the past two games, however, Lin has momentarily gotten his groove back, and looks a lot more like the player we fell in love with last February. He put up 22 points and eight assists in his return to Madison Square Garden, and in last nights thrashing of the Sixers, he put up 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and contributed another six assists. Admittedly, this is only two games, and it doesn’t mean Lin has completely gotten his old form back, but it’s certainly encouraging, and it suggests that Lin’s struggles in November and December do not represent where he really is as a player.
The important thing to note about Lin’s recent success is that Harden has been playing great as well, getting 28 points on Monday, and 33 and Wednesday. The biggest concern about the Harden-Lin backcourt is that it would fail because they are both shoot-first players who need the ball in their hands. At first, that appeared to be true. Harden was shooting up a storm each night, but Lin was shooting the ball less and less, and not making many of the shots he was taking. Was this a backcourt that didn’t make sense? Did the Rockets need to trade Lin in order to compete?
The last two games tell us that all that talk may have been a bit premature. Lin has shot the ball more than usual in each of the last two games, and it has not hurt Harden one bit. If anything, it’s made him better, as he has scored above his season average in both games. A similar thing happened on opening night, when Harden had 38, and Lin had 21. To put it simply, when Lin scores more, Harden usually scores more, too.
But why is this happening? After all, there’s only so many shots you can take in a game, so shouldn’t they be struggling to share the ball? Not really. When Jeremy Lin is heavily involved in the Rockets offense, that means the other team has to think about how to stop him, which means they won’t focus all their energy on containing Harden, which leaves him open for more shots. Remember this is a team that starts Omer Asik at center. Asik puts up good numbers because he knows his limitations, but once he gets more than five feet from the rim, he has little chance of making a basket. This means there are a lot of games when they are essentially playing 4-on-5 offensively. If the only offensive players the other team has to worry about are Harden and Chandler Parsons, both are going to be heavily covered. Getting Lin heavily involved in the offense helps out everyone else on the floor, especially Harden, who is no longer the sole focal point of opposing defenses.
The whole team just plays better when Lin is driving the ball. Even when was struggling offensively, the Rockets offense was still playing very well, but with Lin engaged, they reach a new level. In the past two games, they’ve averaged 117 points. Neither the Knicks nor the Sixers had any idea how to stop them. When Lin’s play is tentative, the team’s offense gets bogged down, and fails to reach its potential. When he’s attacking the basket, and controlling things on the floor, he can make the rest of the team better.
So, how do Harden and Lin play well together? By just being themselves. Both of them are players with a natural propensity to be aggressive on offense, and they do their best when they adapt that style. If Lin takes more shots, it won’t take shots away from Harden. On the contrary, it will mean the shots he does take have a better chance of going in. This backcourt can be extremely explosive when both players are on their game. Harden’s been there all year, and now Lin looks like he may be joining him. If he keeps pushing the ball upcourt, and playing like he did at Linsanity’s peak, the Rockets have a good chance at playoffs. And they just might turn a few heads when they get there.
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John Hugar lives in Buffalo, where he is finishing up undergraduate work at the University at Buffalo. His work has appeared at 3 Shades Of Blue, The Classical, and Bleacher Report. He's been a Grizzlies fan since day one, during their time Vancouver and Memphis.