Prior to this season, James Harden and Jeremy Lin were two players who'd never had the chance to write their own stories. In New York, Lin was pressed into service as both a humble standard-bearer and a basketball messiah, one whose actual abilities were obscured by the phenomenon he created. In Oklahoma City, Harden was a key cog for a Thunder team to build a dream on. ("I keep thinking about those three guys with their arms around each other," Bill Simmons wrote in the aftermath of the deal that broke up the Harden-Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook trio, sounding like someone weeping into his People magazine over a celebrity divorce.) Both players were prisoners of other people's fantasies about what they should be.
Last night, playing for Houston now, Harden and Lin staged something of a jailbreak. Harden was flawless against the Pistons, finishing with 37 points, 12 assists, and six rebounds while dominating every corner of the game. He attacked the rim, hit three-pointers, ran the offense, and played solid defense throughout the night.
Lin quietly had a very good game as well. He finished with 12 points, eight assists, and four rebounds, reminding everyone that it wasn't pixie dust that made him such an adept point guard in New York.
More importantly, Lin and Harden played together. Throughout the game they took turns initiating the offense and getting open looks for each other. At the start of the third quarter, Harden drove the lane on three straight possessions. In one instance he converted a tough layup, and in the other two he kicked the ball out to a wide-open Lin, who both times knocked down jumpers. Two possessions later, Lin brought the ball up the court, saw Harden in the corner, and did this:
There are Bulls fans who maintain a sort of hipster taste for the 1994 season, that weird interregnum between Jordan eras. It's because of Pippen, they say. He was a well-established star at that point, but without Jordan around he finally got to test the outer limits of his abilities, succeeding (and sucking, too) entirely on his own terms.
I suspect that's what we'll get to see from Harden and Lin this year-two very good players liberated from the demands of their old roles, figuring out on the fly just how good they really are.