BIG NIGHT

5 Things To See At Houston Rockets Season Opener

HOUSTON — Some of the biggest names in basketball are at a crossroads and what happens next could define their legacy in the game. I'm eager to see what's in store across the league, nowhere more than in Houston.

Thursday night, the Houston Rockets welcome in 2019 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to the Toyota Center for a gripping matchup. It has all the makings of a high profile game, as THREE former MVPs hit the court for the first time in league history.


While the Bucks continue to be one of the strongest teams in the East — not to mention, one of the best defensive teams in the league, their biggest challenge will be creating a game plan to slow down James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Here's what I'd love to see from Houston's own former MVPs – Brodie, the Beard – and the rest of the Rockets:

Playing Without The Ball

There's no doubt James Harden is the best offensive player in league history. I don't know how anybody could successfully argue otherwise. With that said, we did trade for Westbrook and his game isn't particularly effective unless he runs the ball. Last season, right after Game 2 or 3 against the Golden State Warriors, Harden seemed disinterested when Chris Paul directed the offense. He didn't spot up, or anything. To many… it looked like he was just standing there. With respect to The Beard, I completely understand how frustrating it felt to carry the entire offensive load — but hopefully, the addition of Westbrook alleviates some of that responsibility. After watching the preseason, it (honestly) doesn't seem like Harden's style has changed.


James Harden is playing like Russell Westbrook isn't there – Jalen Rose | Jalen & Jacoby www.youtube.com


MDA needs to emphasize more plays to get Harden off screens and cuts to fully take advantage of his shooting and Westbrook's playmaking on the flip side. If Harden can hit one-legged step-back three-pointers with consistency, imagine what he can do with simplified open shots.


Harden Tries 1-Legged Step-back 3 IN GAME & Russ Loves It www.youtube.com



Transition Offense

The preseason painted MDA's plans on managing two stars with historically high usage. Mike D'Antoni intends on staggering their minutes, taking Harden out first… even though placing a well-rested Westbrook to lead the second unit with EG (aka Splash Gordon) sounds more appealing. The Rockets were in the middle of the road in terms of transition offense. A new wrinkle that could put the team over the top this year would (very much) be the development of not playing so many possessions in the half court set.

With Westbrook's addition, Houston should run the floor more frequently rather than letting the opponent set up on defense. I think it would do James some good to finally get easy looks here and there — especially, after a whole season of being among the least assisted starters. We would under utilize Westbrook, if we don't set him up for success. That being, allowing him to get to the basket and score or dish out the ball for an open look. Tyson Chandler and Clint Capela should be able to gobble up plenty of rebounds to get the break started. Plus, we should showcase Chandler's underrated talent of making some impressive outlet passes to open wings. In the end, we need more fast break points with an increasingly faster and younger league.

Limit Giannis

Giannis lit Houston up for 27 and 30 last year. He was his typical 'freak' self, as they call it. It will be interesting to see how the Rockets plan on limiting his impact. Essentially, forming* a wall around the paint and forcing him to shoot a jumper.

Though Giannis has been working with Kyle Korver this offseason, a broken jumper like his takes a months of Sundays to fix. PJ will have his hands filled regardless.




Some Fire A** Kicks

I expect to see some crazy sneaker game from the most stylish team in the league. No team comes close to the heat coming off the feet of Houston's team. The sneaker king, PJ Tucker, never disappoints. I'm very curious to see what brand Tuck will be rocking since he is now a sneaker 'free agent', and has recently been seen rocking Pumas. I can see him to adding a little drama to this decision on opening night. (Maybe he drops his own signature model?)

PJ Tucker Returns For Sneaker Shopping With Complex youtu.be


Brodie and the Beard may drop some type of new, sizzling colorways of their signature sneaker to get things KICKed off for the night. This is the prime-time game and all eyes are on them. Why not market some shoes?

P.S. If you guys are reading this I'm a size 8W.

Win for Houston

What better way to start off the season than a win against the leagues reigning MVP? The Bucks have carried the title as one of the best defensive teams in the league for two consecutive years, and you can bet your money that they're thirsty to compete with hopes to secure Giannis for years to come in Milwaukee.

Everyone is interested to see how Harden and his new-ish running mate will pair in the backcourt. I know they are both eager to show they can successfully coexist with another star after both of them failing to do so in previous seasons. Also, Morey needs a win after his tweet that shook the NBA and the rest of the world. I know he's China get on Tilman's good side — again. Haha.

Bonus:

Some type of development of Post Offense from Clint Capela.

Capela, even though an uptick in his counting stats, took a step back last year. A simple eye test could have told you that. It would be very nice to see him take advantage of the Bucks weak center lineup. A simple drop step should do the trick. Maybe even a hook shot? The Rockets need evidence that Capela can continue being one of their cornerstone players.

Despite Danuel House being out with a sacral contusion, Eric Gordon being out due to his recent right knee surgery, and Clint Capela being out due to his concussion, the Rockets grinded it out defensively and beat a good Pacers team Friday night. This obviously starts and ends with James Harden's performance (44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals), but it's also much more than that. The Rockets have figured it out defensively to an extent many observers didn't think was possible just two weeks ago.

"A lot of guys had to step up and they did," said Mike D'Antoni after the game. "Right now, like we talked about so many times, we just got to get wins and then we'll get some guys back [from injury]. I thought our defense is getting better all the time, big stops, and James [Harden] was ridiculous. It was a good win."

D'Antoni is correct in that there is a huge value in banking regular seasons early and figuring it out with a healthy roster later. These wins count the same as the ones late in the season as Houston found out last season. While they're trying to get healthy, they need contributions from guys they wouldn't normally lean on and they found that tonight from Ben McLemore. McLemore really stepped up tonight as Houston's second scorer, tallying 21 points on 67.1% true shooting.

"I continue to be a pro, and then continue to do whatever I need to do to help my teammates or help the team win games," said McLemore. "This summer, obviously I signed with them and I was just preparing myself for moments like this."

Tyson Chandler was also huge for the Rockets even though his numbers didn't pop out to you in the stat sheet (2 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal). Chandler was a team high +24 and really shined defensively with the Rockets being without Capela.

"He does everything else," said Harden. "Tip basketballs for rebounds, the contested shots, everything else, the communicating, the talking. Everything that doesn't show up on the stat sheets, he does it."

Star of the game: James Harden continued his hot streak, tallying 44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals on 68.4% true shooting. Down Danuel House, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela, the Rockets needed every bit of Harden's heroics and he delivered. Harden's performances are becoming so regular that they almost feel normal or pedestrian. Let me remind you that nothing about what Harden is doing is or should be considered 'normal'. This is a truly historically special player we're watching on a herculean stretch.

Honorable mention: Ben McLemore delivered his best game of the season for the Rockets scoring 21 points on 6 of 13 shooting from the field, 5 of 6 shooting from the free throw line, and 4 of 11 from three-point range. When Gerald Green went down for the Rockets before the season, there was a void to be filled for a player like McLemore and Houston is fortunate that they found McLemore when they did. He's been the definition of a pleasant surprise

Key moment: From the 8:07 mark of the 4th quarter to the 5:00 mark, James Harden went on a personal 12-0 run for the Rockets that took the Rockets from a 2-point deficit to a 10-point lead. The Rockets were badly in need of offense as Westbrook was struggling to carry the second unit and Harden showed up right when they needed him.

Up next: The Rockets travel to Minnesota at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday to play the Timberwolves.