When Tom Haberstroh used Per Diem to lobby for the Houston Rockets to bench Jeremy Lin two weeks ago, the Rockets were a game below .500, having lost four of their previous six outings. Since then, Houston has emerged as one of the league's hottest teams, winning five in a row before stumbling against last year's Western Conference finalists (San Antonio and Oklahoma City) during a difficult back-to-back over the weekend. That's not entirely a coincidence.
Although the Rockets never took an action so bold as benching Lin, they've been able to reap some of the same benefits by simply staggering his minutes with those of star teammate James Harden, a process that began earlier in December but only fully took root late in the month. During Friday's game against the Spurs, one of Houston's starting guards was on the court for all 48 minutes, the first time that has happened all month. Garbage time is partially to blame; in three of the last five Rockets games, either Harden or Lin played throughout the first three quarters, but the two guards watched the end of blowouts together from the bench.
Despite the influence of lopsided games, the numbers show how Kevin McHale has managed his backcourt differently during the last two weeks as compared to the rest of the season. The percentage of the team's minutes the two players have played together is down, but both have played more on their own. According to NBA.com/Stats, Lin has gone from playing about 40 percent of the minutes Harden rests through Dec. 16 to nearly 60 percent since then.
But that's not the real story. Ultimately, how McHale staggers his rotation makes only a small difference because Harden averages nearly 40 minutes per game. To succeed in Houston, Lin had to stop fearing the Beard's presence. That's the impressive thing about the last two weeks. Suddenly Lin's stat line no longer shows the same extreme splits depending on whether Harden is on the court or off it. Compare his performance playing with Harden through Dec. 16 -- the same figures that appeared in this column then -- and from Dec. 17 onward.
Lin Playing With Harden, Playing Without
Through Dec. 16 Since Dec. 17
PTS 10.7 18.2
AST 6.5 7.3
REB 4.3 3.6
TS% 46.5 62.5
PER 12.1 19.0
Source: NBA.com's StatsCube
To put the magnitude of Lin's improvement into context, consider that his 46.5 percent true shooting percentage (TS%) with Harden through Dec. 16 would rank 281st among regular players. His 62.5 percent TS% since then? That would put him in the league's top 20.
Not only is Lin shooting far more effectively, he's also getting more opportunities to score. In part, this surely reflects that Harden and Lin are becoming more comfortable with each other. After all, the Kim Kardashian-Kanye West pregnancy (12 weeks) is older than their partnership (nine). When they started the Rockets' season opener, it was the first game the two guards had played together -- Harden had been traded to Houston only days earlier. With limited practice time during the regular season, Harden and Lin have had to learn each other's tendencies on the fly.
Beyond that, McHale and the Houston coaching staff have tweaked the offense to put Lin in situations to maximize his talents as a creator. Because Harden is dangerous as an outside shooter and Lin is not, the Rockets may be better off as a team with Lin running pick-and-rolls and Harden spotting up. So over the last couple of weeks, Lin has often initiated possessions with a high pick-and-roll. If that doesn't translate into a shot, Harden is more likely to get the basketball with the shot clock running down.
The other adjustment should be familiar to anyone who has watched the Miami Heat deal with a similar issue involving stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Similar to what Miami does at times, Houston has made defenses account for both Lin and Harden by putting them into occasional pick-and-rolls together. The Lakers used a similar 1-2 pick-and-roll to set up Derek Fisher's winning score during Game 3 of the 2009 NBA Finals, and Orlando made extensive use of the same play when Vince Carter was on the roster.
Using Harden as a screener has a couple of advantages. It puts a guard in the unfamiliar position of defending the roll man. And since Harden is a threat from anywhere on the court, teams can't leave him to commit a second defender on Lin. So either Lin gets a relatively clear path to the basket or the defense has to switch, putting a smaller player on Harden and giving him the opportunity to post up.
Thanks to these changes and Lin's aggressiveness attacking hard closeouts on the perimeter, more than half of his shot attempts with Harden on the floor over the last two weeks have come in the restricted area -- higher than his rate last season in New York, or with Harden on the bench this year.
Other factors have worked in Lin's favor over the last two weeks. The Rockets have pushed the pace lately; ESPN Stats & Info noted that Saturday's loss to Oklahoma City featured more possessions than any regulation NBA game in the last five years. That has created opportunities for Lin to freelance in the open court, and his fast-break points have gone from 5.1 per 36 minutes to 7.5 over the last two weeks. The tempo is up partly because Houston replaced injured starting power forward Patrick Patterson with more small ball, moving Marcus Morris into the starting lineup and sliding small forward Chandler Parsons down to the 4 at times. Those players offer better outside shooting and more spacing from the position, clearing driving lanes for Lin.
Regardless of the reasons, the last seven games have shown that Harden and Lin can excel at the same time. The Rockets' offense has been the beneficiary: Lin's scoring has fueled the recent surge that has pushed the team to sixth in the Hollinger Power Rankings and 10th in the league in offensive rating as of Dec. 16; Houston ranks third since then.
Last weekend showed the Rockets still have too many holes to compete with the West's best teams on a regular basis, but their guard play is good enough to make a playoff trip likely in what figured to be a rebuilding season. Given that Houston has one of the NBA's three youngest rotations and that Lin and Harden are both locked up through 2015, the future is bright now that the two guards are shining together.