Timing is everything. Just ask Jeremy Lin and James Harden.
Though the Houston Rockets' season has been marked by a slew of ambiguity and inconsistency, we're beginning to gain a sense of what kind of team this is. More importantly, we're finally bearing witness to how formidable a duo Harden and Lin can be.
Such conclusions could not be drawn at a better time, either, as at 15-12, the Rockets find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture.
Houston is legit. Harden and Lin as a pairing are legit.
Prior to the Rockets' four-game winning streak, there was a strong case to be made that Harden and Lin wouldn't ever succeed simultaneously. Lin struggled to play next to the ball-dominating Harden, not unlike the way he failed to produce off the ball next to Carmelo Anthony last season.
Harden had the same problem, though to a lesser degree. He had the freedom to covet the ball when he saw fit, but he failed to fully adjust to life alongside a pass-first point guard.
Failure to develop instantaneous chemistry or any visible cohesion at all led to some experimenting on Houston's behalf. Per Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated, the Rockets began to actively separate the two from each other:
Those trends were so conclusive that over the last few games McHale and the Rockets have begun to embrace Harden’s and Lin’s incompatibility. Up until a few weeks ago, Houston treated the two promising guards as if they were joined at the hip; Lin and Harden would both exit the game at the same time in the first and third quarters and play as a tandem as much as the situation allowed in the second and fourth quarters. Such an approach is understandable given the franchise’s vested interest in their joint success, not to mention the fact that both players and coach were entrusted with figuring out how a roster full of young talent would fold itself together.
Now, some of those adjustments remain relevant. Lin and Harden are given more time away from each other to operate. But don't believe for a second that that's the driving force behind their success.
Harden averages more than 38 minutes per game, which means Lin can only play without him for a maximum of 10 minutes. That's nothing.
That means Houston's success, more than anything, can be attributed to them playing effectively together, not embracing the concept of functioning separately.
Before the Rockets' recent winning streak, Lin scored 15 or more points just five times. Of those five performances, merely two coincided with Harden scoring 20 or more points. Just two. And that's absurd.
During this four-game surge, however, such concurrent performances have become the standard. Lin is averaging 18.8 points a night during the winning streak to complement Harden's 29.5.
You should be. And you should also be impressed by their combined 58.3 field-goal percentage. Their 15 assists per night should catch your eye as well.
Because it's not a coincidence. Four games is a small sample size, but it's one that has seen them torch two top-10 defenses in the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls. It's also one that has seen them cripple the New York Knicks at home en route to handing them their first home loss of the season.
And that matters. The fact that Lin and Harden have learned to play off one another matters. No longer are these two in need of utter ball-domination to succeed next to the other. No longer are their similar play styles a hindrance. No longer are they a collective liability.
I understand that the numbers are still there to support otherwise, but seasonal statistics cannot change overnight. Our impression of this pairing, however, should.
Truth be told, we have learned more about Lin and Harden over these last few games than the previous 23 ever taught us. The way both are moving off the ball while also providing the other with the space they need to attack is nothing short of spectacular.
Nor is it anything less than a sign of things to come.
Because as talent-laden as the Western Conference is, it remains wide open.
Sure, you have the seemingly unbeatable in the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, but playoff contenders like the Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves—and even the streaking Los Angeles Lakers—have all been humanized.
That has left the window of postseason opportunity open for the Rockets ajar for Lin and Harden.
And they've delivered, climbing up the standings to where they currently sit, with the West's sixth-best record.
Suddenly, the playoffs don't seem out of reach. Suddenly, this is no longer a rebuilding team with both eyes on next year.
Instead, Houston has become a win-now entity, a team that has established itself as a viable playoff contender.
And a team that now has immediate hope for both its current season and the transcendent dyad that has become James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of December 25, 2012.