HOUSTON—Jeremy Lin looked around on the first day of Houston Rockets’ training camp with more hope than expectation. James Harden arrived three weeks later and everything changed.
The Rockets are back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Houston will face Oklahoma City, Harden’s former team, in the first round beginning Sunday.
"We definitely didn’t think we’d be here coming into training camp," said Lin, who’ll make his playoff debut. "I just didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to come in with high expectations, bold promises or guarantees. Our goal was kind of just hopefully, make the playoffs.
"Obviously, our roster is different, too," Lin said. "We didn’t have James before. Going into training camp, things were a lot different."
Harden seemed as stunned as anyone when he was traded to Houston in late October. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Harden embraced and thrived his new starring role, leading the Rockets in scoring 59 times and initiating a fad of fake black beards among Houston’s fans. He was the league’s fifth-leading scorer, notched his first career triple-double and set a team record with 674 free throws.
The high point of his season came against his old team, when he scored a career-high 46 points against the Thunder at the Toyota Center on Feb. 20, the night before the trade deadline. That night, the Rockets traded power forward Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris in separate deals and received rookie Thomas Robinson and Francisco Garcia.
The trade didn’t upset team chemistry; Garcia has become a key contributor and Houston won 14 of 24 games after the All-Star break.
The Rockets were already a tight group, partly because all of them are so close in age. Houston has the youngest roster in the league (the average age is 24.9) and only Garcia and 3-point specialist Carlos Delfino are over 30. When they clinched their postseason berth—secured by an Oklahoma City victory over Utah—the team gathered for a late-night celebratory dinner after its own victory over Phoenix.
"Our team is getting closer off the court, the more time we spend with each other," Lin said. "We enjoy being around each other’s company, it’s not like it’s forced or anything. That’s a good thing, because when we get on the court, we want to play for each other."
The closeness made it easier to establish a fast-paced offensive style. The Rockets were the league’s second-highest scoring team (106 points per game), finished second in fast-break points and sank a team-record 867 3-pointers.
"It’s promising that these guys are all my age and all my teammates, and we’re building something here," said Chandler Parsons, the only starter left from last year’s roster. "It’s really encouraging for us that we’re doing big things in such a limited time and at such a young age."
The Rockets lost two of three regular-season meetings with Oklahoma City and dropped three of their last four regular-season games overall to slip to No. 8 in the West. But Houston’s confidence won’t be an issue in the series.
"I just think we’re really good," he said. "We have good coaches, we have hard workers, we’ve got humble guys. Put all that stuff and combine it together, it’s a good recipe. The more we work together and the more we practice and the more we play, the better we’re going to be."
The Thunder will have a vast edge in playoff experience, but that’s another big reason Houston wanted Harden, one of only six Rockets who’s appeared in a playoff game. Harden has talked to less seasoned players about the intensity and level of focus required in the postseason.
"They know the atmosphere, they’ve watched it on TV," Harden said. "But the small things, knowing where guys should be on the defensive end, knowing personnel, watching film, just little key things. That’s going to help us get over the edge and that’s going to help us play better as a team."