JEREMY LIN AND JAMES HARDEN first shared a court on Dec. 5, 2010, never imagining how the NBA would evolve to bring them together two years later. Harden, picked third overall by the Thunder in ’09, scored 12 points in a little more than 24 minutes that night in Oklahoma City; Lin, signed by the Warriors after going undrafted in ’10, sank all of a free throw in a little over eight minutes. Throw in an equally forgettable, pre-Linsanity encounter in January and you have the extent of their previous hoops history.
Which is to say that Houston’s now-famous backcourt is, above all, a radical experiment in workplace chemistry. Reunited on the evening of Oct. 27 — Thunder general manager Sam Presti gave Harden his exit phone call while the 23-year-old was out eating dinner with family and friends in Oklahoma City — the two had exactly 96 hours before suiting up together in Houston’s season opener at Detroit. No training camp? No matter. By tip-off, the guards seemed to share a special kinship as cult heroes who’d been publicly underrated, overrated, then back again.
How do they rate now? Through 11 games, Harden was averaging 24.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists; Lin was at 10.5, 4.5 and 6.6. But per-possession metrics revealed a curious dynamic: While the Rockets (4-7) were outscored by 31 points over the 330 minutes in which the two stars played together, they outscored opponents by 19 points in the 87 minutes when Harden played without Lin. So while the two might well make up the highest-IQ backcourt in recent NBA history — certainly among guards who’ve been voluntarily let go by previous employers — a less quantifiable question remains: How well do these co-workers really know each other?
Using the advanced metric of true-or-false, we caught up with the new Rocket men to find out.
ESPN: James, Jeremy — it’s time to see how well you KNOW. YOUR. TEAMMATE. We’ll give each of you some facts about the other, and you tell us if they’re true or false. James, we’ll start with you.
True or false? When Jeremy was a Harvard senior, a date with him fetched more than $1,000 at a charity auction.
HARDEN: Uh. TRUE! I’d say probably more than that.
LIN:[Makes sound of a shot clock expiring]
ESPN: FALSE! Jeremy went for a staggering $69, the second-lowest amount at the entire auction.
Was that fair market value (1) for you in 2010, Jeremy?
HARDEN: Wow! Maybe in 2010. Now it’s way more than that.
LIN: Yeah, man. Harvard basketball: No one cared.
ESPN: Jeremy, what would James fetch?
LIN: Now? A lot. A lot. (2)
True or false? James’ mother has never asked him to change his beard.
LIN: I’m going to say. FALSE. ‘Cause if I tried to do something like that, my mom would definitely ask me to cut it off.
ESPN: The correct answer is FALSE! James, care to explain your mom’s position toward your facial growth?
HARDEN: Now she doesn’t really care. At first she definitely wanted me to cut it. But as time went on, she found out I was keeping the beard, and so she had to just ride along with it.
ESPN: Jeremy, have you ever experimented with facial hair?
HARDEN: No. I’ll answer that for him: No.
LIN:[Stroking his chin] I can’t. I might get about 10 little different spots, and they look like whiskers.
AFTER ROUND 1: HARDEN 0, LIN 1
True or false? An assistant coach called Jeremy the wrong name during a recruiting trip to a Pac-10 team.
LIN: A coach called me. uh, he called me Ron Jeremy. I kid you not. I said, I am not coming to this school.
HARDEN: Ron Jeremy! [Hysterical. ] That. has never happened to me. [Both laughing. ]
True or false? James inspired a Thunder fan to get a tattoo of James’ face on his arm.
LIN: I think that’s — I definitely saw something about it somewhere, somebody getting a tattoo. But I don’t know if it was of his face. I’m going to guess TRUE.
ESPN: Correct! And it’s not a small tattoo either. In fact. [ESPN displays color printout of the tattoo.]
LIN: Oh. my. god.
LIN: You didn’t see that?
HARDEN: I never saw it before. Wow. That’s a true fan.
ESPN: That guy, ostensibly, was a Thunder fan — how do you think he feels? (3)
HARDEN: I have no idea. Maybe he can become a Rockets fan? (4)
LIN: I can’t beat that. I cannot beat that.
HARDEN: There’s not too many things you can do to beat that.
LIN: That’s ridiculous. That’s for life.
AFTER ROUND 2: HARDEN 1, LIN 2
True or false? Jeremy’s first dunk was as a sophomore in college.
HARDEN: FALSE! False! False! False! False! False!
LIN: My first dunk ever was in middle school. We were playing, me and my church friends, and I dunked it, and I swear I could not sleep that night. It was like, being Asian and everything [Harden laughs], none of my friends, none of my brothers had ever dunked before.
ESPN: Did you get it down solidly?
LIN: Oh yeah. I wouldn’t count a weak one. (5)
True or false? James is regarded as a frustrating video game opponent because he refuses to get emotional.
LIN: Hmm. I’m going to go TRUE. ‘Cause I feel like I’ve never seen him get out of his element on the court.
ESPN: Well, according to James’ friends, the answer is False. James, care to explain your video game rage?
HARDEN: I get pissed at video games. That’s my hobby — the majority of the time I’m not on the court. When I lose, that’s another side of me. Controllers get broken. Things like that.
LIN: I was notorious for that as a kid. Notorious. My friends didn’t even want me playing anymore (6) because I’d break their stuff.
ESPN: So you guys have not played against each other?
HARDEN: No, not yet.
LIN: What games do you play?
HARDEN: Madden, 2K — all sports games. Call of Duty.
LIN: Yeah, I play first-person shooters. I just got Halo 4!
AFTER ROUND 3: HARDEN 2, LIN 2
True or false? As a freshman in high school, Jeremy got a 790 out of 800 on his advanced math SAT II subject test.
HARDEN: TRUE! He’s brilliant! I mean, he went to Harvard. He’s a smart basketball player, (7) but book smarts, obviously, he gets it done. So it’s definitely true.
ESPN: FALSE! Jeremy got a perfect 800.
HARDEN: Oh my goodness! Oh s–. that’s crazy!
LIN: I still remember that because the highest score I had ever gotten was a 670 on all the practice tests. [Harden rolls his eyes.] So I came home and told my mom, “I got an 800,” and she just laughed at me. It was a miracle.
ESPN: How does that rank on your list of life achievements?
LIN: That. is pretty low. [Both laugh.]
ESPN: Did you have a favorite subject in school, James?
HARDEN: Yeah, math. Um. but I don’t want to talk about it anymore because he got an 800.
True or false? James has exactly one tattoo.
LIN: I’m going to just guess. TRUE.
ESPN: The answer is FALSE. He has no tattoos. James, tattoos are everywhere in the NBA. Why are you inkless?
HARDEN: I’ve just never really been into ’em. And now I feel like I’m at the point where it’s too late.
ESPN: Jeremy, you are also inkless?
LIN: Oh yeah. Yeah, I can’t do needles. I heard they hurt.
ESPN: But Jeremy, what would your hypothetical tattoo be?
LIN: The only situation I’d get one would be if something happened to somebody I was really close to and I wanted to get a tattoo of them — on my heart or something. Or maybe scripture somewhere. But it would never be, like, visible.
ESPN: It would never be, say, James’ face on your arm.
LIN: No, probably not.
AFTER ROUND 4: HARDEN 2, LIN 2
True or false? While with the Knicks, Jeremy did not know where Times Square was for almost four months.
HARDEN: TRUE. Am I right?
ESPN: The correct answer is TRUE! And Times Square is arguably the most famous part of New York, and Madison Square Garden is literally nine blocks from Times Square. So Jeremy: How is this humanly possible?
LIN: Because, shoot, I did not go anywhere in New York. One time we were driving through Koreatown, and I thought Koreatown was Times Square. [Harden laughs.] Just ’cause we turned this corner and there were just lights everywhere, and I was like, Oh, is this Times Square? And [ex-Knicks big] Jared Jeffries looked at me like I was crazy. So, uh, yeah. I didn’t get to explore as much as I wish I did. (8)
ESPN: Was this a problem in Oklahoma City, James?
HARDEN: No. Not at all. I knew where everything was. (9)
ESPN: How about Houston? You know your way around yet?
HARDEN: Not me. I’ve only been here for a week or two, so.
LIN: I GPS everything. There are infinity freeways.
True or false? In high school, James wore a completely normal tuxedo to his senior prom.
LIN: FALSE. He has the large beard.
ESPN: That is correct!
ESPN: James wore a sky-blue-and-tan suit and Nikes.
LIN: Can we see that picture? We gotta get that up.
HARDEN: No way! I actually thought I was fresh.
ESPN: You might’ve been fresh.
FINAL SCORE: HARDEN 3, LIN 3.
ESPN: James and Jeremy, congratulations: You’re the improbable co-champions of KNOW. YOUR. TEAMMATE! What do you have to say for yourselves?
HARDEN: I learned some interesting things about him. And maybe I got a new nickname for him.
LIN:[Laughs] We just gotta make sure that in our next TV game, I wear a sky-blue suit with Nikes. Hopefully, I won’t be fined for a dress-code violation.
HARDEN: There you go.
1. $762,195: Lin’s pay in 2011-12.
$7,445,408: Lin’s market value* to the Knicks that season (based on John Hollinger’s Estimated Wins Added).
2. $4,604,760: Harden’s pay in 2011-12.
$17,293,263: Harden’s market value that season.
3. 5.9: OKC’s plus/minus rating when Harden was on the court last season — better than Kevin Durant’s 5.6 and Russell Westbrook’s 5.5.
4. 24.2 / 4.7: Harden’s ppg and apg in 2012-13, both career highs. Not coincidentally, his usage rate of 29.5 percent far surpasses his 21.6 percent last season in OKC.
5. 3: Number of dunks attempted by Lin (all made) in 572 career shots — a dunk-per-shot rate of 0.52 percent. Harden is at 5.7 percent.
6. 10.5: The point differential of this year’s Lin-less Knicks — which is 5.7 points per game better than the Knicks during the 26 games of Linsanity.
7. 2.6: Lin’s turnovers per game this season in Houston, a decline of 28 percent from his much-maligned 3.6 turnovers per game last season.
8. 15.7: Number of hours (940 minutes in all) Lin was on the court in a Knicks uniform last season. If he had little time to explore the city, it’s because he hardly spent any time there.
9. 4.0: Harden’s turnovers per game this season in Houston, a career high. Apparently, Harden hasn’t yet figured out where everything is in Houston — at least on the court.
*All stats through Nov. 19 and courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.
Pablo S. Torre interviewed Lin and Harden on Nov. 8, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.