Kevin McHale and James Harden are ready.
The Houston Rockets are set to make their return to the postseason, and much like the other coaches in the Association, Kevin McHale will be looking to shorten his rotation and define the roles for his players.
McHale has some unique challenges before him with this Rockets team. It's a team without a lot of experience; the Rockets boast the league's youngest starting lineup. No starter has significant playoff experience outside of James Harden (and possibly Omer Asik, if his minutes as a member of the Chicago Bulls can be warranted as valuable experience).
They will be an untested team and a team that will begin to encounter the trials of postseason basketball together.
The Rockets will face either the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs or the third-seeded Denver Nuggets. Houston holds a tiebreaker with Golden State, but the teams have identical records and two more games to play.
Regardless of whether the Rockets face the Spurs or Nuggets, it's time for Rockets fans and the team to get a taste of what it's like to be in the postseason again. And this season provides a lot of hope that the team will continue to make postseason runs.
It should be just the first year of the Harden era. Let's look at how it will all unfold.
2013 Playoffs Projection: 34 minutes per game, 12.5 points per game, 5.5 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 3.2 turnovers
After his breakout "Linsanity" performance in New York last season, the bar was set pretty high for Jeremy Lin this season. Fans around the league were captivated by the brilliance he displayed down the stretch of the 2011-12 season, as he led the Knicks to seven consecutive victories in Feb. 2012, averaging 17 points and nine assists over the stretch.
Lin would go on to find his way to Houston over the offseason, where he received a three-year, $25 million contract. Carmelo Anthony called it ridiculous, but Linsanity had begun. Now, Lin will take his talents to the postseason for the first time in his career; he missed the playoffs due to injury while in New York.
Lin's struggled to refine certain aspects of his game, but his potential is still very high. He has to cut down on his turnovers and find a more consistent jump shot, but the basketball instincts and talents that rendered him so successful in New York have been showing all season. It's just been a lot less pronounced due to James Harden's need for the ball to be in his hands.
While analyzing Lin's stats, it must be kept in mind that Harden has the ninth highest usage rate in the Association (27.2 percent). Lin is not the primary option, and learning how to play with Harden has been difficult for him.
The Rockets are hoping the two grow together and complement one another as players, but that process has been slow in coming.
Whether the Rockets face Denver or San Antonio, Lin will have his hands full defensively. The Nuggets' Ty Lawson and Spurs legend Tony Parker are both floor generals who can and will push Lin to the limits. But Lin's lateral foot speed is very good, and he's a far better defender than most would suspect. He reacts well to pick and rolls, and he communicates well with teammates.
Lin's going to make his postseason debut, and maybe the expectations will continue to be too high. Maybe some people haven't figured it out yet. Lin is just a very good basketball player who had a legendary stretch of games.
The fact that he did it in a New York minute while captivating the nation naturally set the bar just a bit higher than it would have had he done it for a small market team out of the limelight.
None of that should even matter now: The playoffs are here and it's Lin's chance to help his Rockets advance in the postseason.
2013 Playoffs Projection: 39 minutes per game, 25 points per game, 5.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 turnovers
James Harden spent the first three seasons of his NBA career as a sixth man for Oklahoma City Thunder before Rockets GM Daryl Morey took advantage of a situation that was too good to be true: The chance to pry away a franchise talent whose team couldn't afford to pay him.
The 23-year-old received a five-year max-contract in Houston, and he's earned every penny of it so far. This will be his first chance to shine as a No. 1 option in the playoffs, as he was a supporting player in his previous appearances with the Thunder.
His ability to push the ball and create in transition is very impressive. He's adept at drawing contact and finishing through it. And his motor is paralleled by few.
Harden has increased his scoring average by nearly 10 points per game and become an elite 2-guard. He made his first All-Star team and is destined to make many more.
Regardless of whether he finds himself being covered by Andre Iguodala of the Nuggets or Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, Harden will be ready for the challenge of carrying his team. Whichever opponent the Rockets face, George Karl and Gregg Popovich's focus will be on slowing down the Arizona State product.
2013 Playoffs Projection: 36 minutes per game, 16.6 points per game, 3.8 assists, 5.5 assists, 2.1 turnovers
Chandler Parsons is in no uncertain terms the best bargain in the NBA. He's making under a million this season, but his versatility and ability to defend have made him a key starter on a playoff team. Coming out of Florida as a second-round draft pick, not a lot was expected of Parsons. But he's averaged 15 points per game this season while also filling out the stat sheet.
Parsons is averaging over five rebounds a game and also accounts for 3.5 of the 15.9 Rockets' assists per game. Parsons' contract and his 15-plus PER make him an attractive trade piece for a lot of teams, but Daryl Morey will be wise to hold onto him. When he gets hot, there's few better, and he has had 20 games with 20-plus points this season.
On March 3 against the Dallas Mavericks, Parsons shot 12 of 13 from the field and scored 32 points in under 30 minutes of play. Six of his field goals were threes, and his only miss was a three that came midway through the second quarter as he was starting to get tired and needed a breather—he hadn't yet been out.
Chandler Parsons has all the talent to eventually be an All-Star.
2013 Playoffs Projection: 18 minutes per game, 7.7 points per game, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 blocks
The 4-spot is the weakest position for the Houston Rockets, and it's pretty self-inflicted. The team had been experiencing success with a time-share at power forward all season until the trade deadline arrived. Prior to the trade that brought in Thomas Robinson from Sacramento, Kevin McHale had used a time-share of Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris.
Now that neither player is on the team anymore, McHale is left with three less attractive (at least for the present) options, and Greg Smith has only been the most recent experiment on McHale's part to find someone who can play the 4 in Houston until the Rockets go and acquire a full-time starter this summer.
Smith is essentially just a hard worker who is going to get some putback buckets and defend big bodies. His per-36 production, though, is very good: 14 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. The problem for Smith will be staying out of foul trouble.
This year, Smith has averaged 5.7 fouls per-36, and last year as a rookie it was an alarming 8.9 fouls. He has to stop reaching so much and stay on his feet, but that's a difficult lesson for a lot of big men to learn, even after many years of playing organized basketball.
Smith was never projected to be a starter in the NBA, and he wasn't even drafted. But he's about to feel the bright lights of playoff basketball, and McHale is just going to have to hope and assume he'll do a better job than two true rookies in Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson.
2013 Playoffs Projection: 31 minutes per game, 10 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.0 blocks
James Harden is a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year, but it's not really a coincidence that his teammate Omer Asik should be as well (and perhaps even Chandler Parsons, while we're at it).
Asik dwelled behind Joakim Noah as a backup in Chicago for two seasons before Daryl Morey offered him a contract that was highly scrutinized. Asik signed for three seasons and $25 million, despite never averaging more than 14 minutes per game in an NBA season.
The 26-year-old from Turkey has silenced those doubters, showing he has more offensive game than suspected. And it isn't just that he has more; he's actually developed more on a game-by-game basis. Some of the things Asik was most criticized for have become near-strengths of his now. He's able to catch the ball much better, and keeps his composure when finishing through traffic.
He still needs to work on finishing harder and dunking the basketball instead of continually laying it short, but this is a guy most said could never average double figures...and he's already averaging a double-double in his first full season as an NBA starter.
Asik is not the most enthralling to watch, but his gritty play and hard work is part of what has made the Rockets into the success they've been this season.
After being corrected that Asik was Turkish, Howard didn't seem to care. The funny thing is, "that Russian dude" might be in the playoffs, while Dwight watches from home. Asik is ready to show the world Turkish dudes can play some ball.
2013 Playoffs Projection: 27 minutes per game, 11.0 points, 1.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds
Carlos Delfino is a great sixth man for any team; he's a jack of all trades type. Doc Rivers really wanted to bring Delfino to Boston this summer but couldn't find any way to make it happen. The free agent eventually matriculated to Houston, and it's proven to be an effective career decision for the eight-year veteran from Argentina.
Delfino has the Argentine pedigree; he's played with Manu Ginobili on those competitive Argentine teams which have given the US and many other nations trouble in International play. He has the poise to take and hit big shots, and often Delfino finds himself in the backcourt during crunch time.
He's had five games with 20-plus points, but the Rockets are just 10-8 when Delfino scores 15 points or more. The stat reflects more of a trend than a problem though: Delfino has his biggest nights on those affairs in which the other Rockets are struggling.
And that's his real value. Delfino is a guy who picks up slack and provides scoring when the well runs dry. If Harden, Lin or Parsons ends up in foul trouble, it will be Carlos who will come in and take the shots they would have.
Delfino is far more important than most may realize, and a lot of it is because of his ability to play above-average defense at three positions. He's a utility defender and shooter who can be a huge part of Houston's success if they are to upset San Antonio or Denver.
The Houston Rockets are a good young team, but to be sure, they lack depth. The Rockets don't have a lot of experience, and after trading away Toney Douglas, Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris, Morey decimated his bench even worse.
Aaron Brooks, who was acquired with Robinson, has played sparingly in just seven Rockets games. Francisco Garcia hasn't established a regular place in the rotation either. The Rockets shipped out three rotation players and brought back zero, which has only further weakened their bench.
Patrick Beverley is a water bug point guard and a defensive pest. He is passable as a backup point guard. At times, he is even very good. But he's not the guy you want to strut out as the seventh best player in the rotation.
Donatas Motiejunas has a lot of offensive talent and could eventually be a Pau Gasol-like talent offensively. Thomas Robinson and Terrence Jones are two rookies with the upside to be All-Stars, but they are both far away from that point in their careers.
It all adds up to a Rockets bench that probably won't see much court time in the postseason. McHale will likely cling pretty tightly to his starting lineup, and with the exception of Greg Smith all Rockets starters are going to see above their season averages for minutes.
The Rockets are not expected to win their first playoff series together in the Harden era, but teams have to respect the high-octane attack of McHale's club.
This year will provide a chance to for the players to gain experience and build comfort with one another. It will be a chance to get their feet wet. And in doing so, we may even find that an unexpected Rocket or two emerges as a major fixture in their future plans.