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Ball Don't Lie

The Houston Rockets, way ahead of schedule, have turned into a team to watch

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and James Harden gets down upon the crown, baby (Getty Images)

Slowly, and ahead of schedule, the Houston Rockets are working well together. Since Jeremy Lin’s breakout performance in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs last week, the team has won four of five games and dropped in a Western conference playoff bracket few thought they’d have a place in. Even after the team traded for All-Star James Harden, pairing him with Jeremy Lin in one of the league’s more intriguing backcourts, the Rockets were still thought to be a young rebuilding team that would need at least a year’s worth of chemistry-building before it could be counted on to play past the regular season. Instead, just seven weeks into this experiment, the alchemy is in place.

Truly, this team has no business putting anything together this soon. And yet, 25 games in, the Rockets are above .500 and overcoming quite a bit. To hear coach Kevin McHale tell it, though, the team’s potential is far from being met. From the Houston Chronicle:

Coach Kevin McHale, Lin and Harden again said Wednesday time will take care of everything. And Houston’s coach was more concerned about the Rockets’ defense than the on-the-court relationship between the team’s star point guard and shooting guard.

“A lot of our offensive flow is predicated on our defense,” McHale said. “If we can get stops, we can get out and go – we’re just much, much better.”

It’s true that the team’s defense – currently ranked 19th in defensive efficiency – still could use quite a bit of touch-up work. In terms of getting out and going, though, the Rockets already have that down pat. They’re first in the NBA in possessions per game, pushing with abandon to the dismay of their “we have 55 games left, dude”-opponents.

And that 13-12 record is remarkable when you consider the obstacles the team has overcome this season.

There was the offseason signings of Lin and former Chicago Bulls center Omer Asik, players who were dotted to strange contracts meant to take advantage of bigger market teams (though the Bulls don’t always act like one) and front offices that might make decisions based off of personal spite. Both were set to make superstar money in their third year had Chicago or the New York Knicks matched the terms, which set off an uneasy discussion about the relative merits of each player.

Then, each player had to learn life as a starter. A switch in roles that shouldn’t be sloughed off.

Asik had averaged just 12.1 and 14.7 minutes per game in his first two seasons in Chicago, minute allotments that allowed him to take chances defensively while playing a wearing style of defense that might not hold up over extended rotation stints. Lin played against relatively iffy competition while in Harvard and the NBA’s D-League, and barely played at all as an NBA pro save for seven sublime weeks as a Knick starter in 2011-12. Though both won’t be paid as stars with their Rockets contracts, they have been asked to take on the minutes usually afforded to stars.

Lin’s ligament tear from last March also complicated things. Jeremy might not be coming back from a massive reconstruction or break, but the first significant injury of a player’s career always serves as a massive setback. The player, whether he’s a relative neophyte like Lin or a lauded veteran like Dirk Nowitzki, has to completely re-learn how to play, and to trust a part of the body that had never been called into question before. That’s no quick fix.

Then, in one of the more stunning moves of the NBA’s 2012 calendar year, the Rockets traded for former Oklahoma City Thunder star James Harden just before the season started. Harden was at once asked to leave the only team he’s ever known, work as a starter for the first time in his NBA career, and acclimate to a Rockets team that just finished a training camp and preseason that he wasn’t a part of. Oh, and also sign a lifetime-defining maximum contract to be the Houston Rockets’ Next Great Franchise Player.

Harden was at his Harden-y best on Wednesday in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers, seemingly effortlessly working his way around screen and rolls and repeatedly getting to the rim for either lay-ins or the type of fouls that lead to 18 (!) free throw attempts and a 33-point night. Sixers coach Doug Collins and seen the  literal version of “effortless” before, as the former Arizona State University TV analyst was among the many that were chagrined by Harden’s literal too cool for school play at ASU.

From NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury, the longtime Rocket follower who is also a must-follow on Twitter:

“I wish he had the energy he played with at Arizona State,” the Sixers’ coach said a few minutes before Harden went out and torched his team for 33 points on just 12 field goal attempts.

“If you ask James Harden to tell you one thing he heard from Doug Collins for two years, he’ll tell you: ‘Play with a motor. Play with a motor.’ He had no motor in college. None.”

[…]

“[Collins] taught me a lot,” Harden said. “He would mentor me. He would tell me that I had to have a motor. I had to build a motor up to be successful and have a chance to play in the NBA. My sophomore year, the reason I came back [to college] was to learn and build my motor up. He was the reason for that.

“I was nonchalant, just chill. That’s how I still am, but I have a little motor in me now. That’s the difference. He saw me in my building stage, when I was preparing for the NBA. So for him to have great compliments about me, it means a lot to me.”

Yeah, he’s got a little motor. A turbo-charged four-banger that’s good enough pull away in the straights, hold its own in the corners, and remain efficient enough to use day in and day out. Over 25 points per game for Harden so far this year, with a combined 9.8 rebounds/assists. If Eric Bledsoe is the mini-LeBron, then Harden is the “Mini-LeBron That Gets Minutes.” And he’s played just as well as ever, if not better, since sitting out to watch Lin’s comeback performance against the Spurs last week.

Lin’s had a pair of rough outings in the days since, the Celtics and Raptors appeared to drive him batty, but overall he’s been fantastic since Dec. 10. Even including the two stinkers, Lin is averaging 16.7 points on 52 percent shooting with 7.7 assists and just 16 turnovers spread out over six games. It’s true that he, like Harden, needs the ball to be effective – but when you average the most possessions in the NBA like the Rockets do, there’s a lot of ball to go around. This is starting to work, guys.

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Rockets coach Kevin McHale (Getty Images)

And Kevin McHale is working through it all. To come back to his job after the unspeakable tragedy that he recently endured, dealing with the untimely passing of his daughter Sasha, is remarkable enough. And though the two situations aren’t comparable in the slightest, McHale has done wonders showing patience and trust in his young roster. This is a team full of Omer Asiks, Jeremy Lins, James Hardens and Chandler Parsons. Patrick Patterson gets minutes. Toney Douglas is used expertly. McHale is used to Bird and Parish and Dennis Johnson’s quiet guidance and wins and wins and wins – and yet he’s playing the youngsters with upside and winning.

Maybe there’s something to ex-general managers turning into coaches. Someone like Doug Collins is routinely criticized for playing the players that will make him happiest, right bleeping now. McHale, who enjoyed high highs and very low lows as personnel boss of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 1995 to 2009, seems to treat Rocket GM Daryl Morey’s acquisitions with a touch of a man that knows that the world isn’t going to end when the Mayans say it will. And that winning 43 games this year would be fantastic, but not at the expense of denying the developers their chance to grow.

Of course, Morey hasn’t exactly provided McHale with a whole lot of veteran lean-tos; and that’s to Morey’s credit. He’s managed to stack the deck in a rebuilding way, the youngest team in the NBA even after the Harden acquisition, without throwing in the towel and hoping the lottery luck turns out. It may not result in another pair of back to back championships for Houston, who knows if Harden and Lin are enough, but it’s created perhaps the most entertaining team in the NBA.

And, to paraphrase Dean Parks, it’s interesting to note that it can be a hit.

The recent schedule wasn’t exactly full of heavy-hitters. The team still turns it over way too much and gives up too good of a shooting percentage in all areas. The limitations are worrying, and the West is a beast.

This team is fun, though. And it’s figuring things out in full view of the League Pass (and sometimes national TV, like on Christmas day against Chicago) cameras instead of working things out behind the scenes at practice, as most young teams do. That’s a mindset that starts from the top and moves its way on down to its fantastic players.

You don’t have to drop everything and start rooting for the Houston Rockets. Making them your second-favorite team, though, wouldn’t be a bad start.

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