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ATLANTA — "Is there water in my beard?"
James Harden fluffed his beard, the shorthand symbol of his identity, as he prepared to speak to a collection of media that reached legitimate throng status. The beard is the easy signifier, a Halloween prop come to life. You see a guy rocking a beard the size of a cafeteria tray, you figure he's a clown, a throwback to Dennis Rodman and other stars whose flash overwhelmed their substance.
And then he takes the court, and you start to rethink your opinion. Harden, in the first games of his fourth year, is on the very edge of superstar status, and he's looking like he's ready to assume the role.
This time last year, Harden was a role player on an ascending Oklahoma City team. But a breakout playoff performance, a Sixth Man award and an Olympic gold medal (plus a little notoriety at the elbow of Metta World Peace) and Harden solidified his credentials enough that the Thunder decided he'd be better off as trade asset than employee. So Harden packed his bags and his beard and journeyed about 500 miles down Interstate 45.
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Harden thus gave Houston its second straight meteor hit, following the Rockets' summer signing of instant phenom Jeremy Lin. And with Harden and Lin, the Rockets now have — hey, why not call it like it is? — the finest backcourt in the NBA.
Granted, two games is not exactly a representative sample size. But in their first 96 minutes together, Harden and Lin have exceeded every expectation, forming a no-look, pick-and-rolling machine that's accounting for the overwhelming majority of Houston's points. They've got youth and an array of skills, facets that other top duos (Kobe/Nash in L.A., Manu/Parker in San Antonio, Deron/Joe Johnson in Brooklyn) just can't match. Not yet, anyway.
On Friday night, in a thorough 109-102 dismantling of the Atlanta Hawks, Harden and Lin demonstrated that they deserve every bit of the praise ladled on them. Harden scored 45 points on 14-of-19 shooting. Lin came within three assists of a triple-double, posting a 21-10-7 line. And while both of them have their quirks — Harden dribbles like the floor is sticky, Lin sometimes takes on the fling-up-everything role of a rec league ballhog — the bottom line is that these two have the kind of complementary games that could make Houston a very tough opponent, at least in two positions.
The media loves to saddle players with ready-made storylines, to reduce every guy dribbling a ball to a one-word characteristic: ASCENSION. DOMINATION. REDEMPTION. For Harden and Lin, the prepackaged storyline is REVENGE. Lin's gonna want revenge on the New York Knicks for letting him twist in the wind! Harden's gonna tear the Oklahoma City Thunder a new one for shipping him out of town!
If that's the storyline, someone needs to slip Lin and Harden a script. Neither one seems particularly interested in the vendetta concept. Hell, these guys have had just three practices together; they're probably more concerned with remembering each other's roles in the playbook.
"I go from coming off the bench to having the offense run through me," Harden said. "It's an adjustment. But it's my job. I'll be fine."
If anything, they're focused on how to lead a very young team.
"You saw our youth today," Lin said, talking about the 14-point lead that the Rockets let vanish. "We got leads and we gave them back. Great teams don't do that. I'm just glad we stuck it out ... Sometimes you've got to win ugly, and that's what we did tonight."
As the media surrounded first Harden and then Lin in Philips Arena's tiny locker room, Houston's Royce White looked around, shook his head and said, "Wow." But he had no doubts about the value of the media circus that he'll see at every road stop.
"It's good for our organization, it's good for Houston, it's good for the team," he said. "Everybody's young. James is playing like a veteran even though it's only his fourth year. Lin is playing really well. That young factor helps them gel really well."
They're also happy to heap praise like Thanksgiving seconds. "He does a great job of creating and making plays, both for me and for himself," Harden said of Lin. "He can get me the ball where I need it. That's what makes us so good together."
"I can't say enough about him," Lin said. "It's not just me [he helps]. He frees everyone up." Lin paused and smiled a grateful smile. "We're just thankful he showed up."
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.
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