GIVE HARDEN A BREAK

Before making your mind up about James Harden, consider this

Rockets fans were not happy with Harden. Photo by Getty Images

There was something different about the Houston Rockets first practice of the 2020-21 NBA season. For the first time in nearly a decade, serial scoring champ James Harden wasn't there. And the first pre-season game is Friday, with the official season tipping off in less than two weeks.

If not in camp, then where was Harden? He spent last Thursday in Atlanta celebrating the birthday of his best friend and famed trap rapper, Lil Baby. After the party, he flew to Las Vegas for more weekend partying before returning home – at least for now – Houston.

Rockets fans were not happy with Harden skipping class, especially after a video surfaced on Twitter showing the Beard presenting Lil Baby a Prada duffle bag stuffed with $100,000 cash, a $300,000 Richard Mille watch and a bunch of honeybuns.

Because he was out-of-town last week, Harden must test negative three more times for COVID-19 before he is allowed to team practices. Not helping matters, in all the photographs published from Harden's weekend fiesta, there wasn't a single soul wearing a mask.

Since appearing in Atlanta and Las Vegas, Harden has quickly bolted up the list of Houston athletes that fans want out of the Bayou City. Harden reportedly has told Rockets management that while he'd prefer to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets, he'd accept a swap to the Philadelphia 76'ers. It was announced overnight that Harden added the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks to his list. While breaking up is hard to do, deep down can you really blame Harden for wanting to leave the Rockets? Former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who either resigned or was fired by team owner Tilman Fertitta, is now the boss man in Philadelphia. Harden and Morey were soulmates trying to capture an NBA title for Houston. Although the tandem failed to reach the promised land, it's obvious they wouldn't mind chasing the goal in Philadelphia.

Many longtime Rockets fans have turned on the reigning 3-time NBA scoring champ. But have they considered that maybe Harden would benefit from an occasional day off like, you know, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard or equivalent superstars? Harden is hardly the first sports veteran to find any excuse to miss the opening few days of training camp.

Bear in mind, because of COVID-19, this was the briefest NBA off-season. Doesn't it feel like we watched the Los Angeles Lakers win the bubble title only a couple of months ago? Actually, the Lakers brushed aside the Heat on Oct. 11 – less than two months ago. Harden, the ultimate gym rat and workhorse, was third in the league in minutes played last season. OK, maybe partying in Atlanta and Vegas wasn't the best form of R&R, but Harden was entitled to some extra time off. Give Harden a break.

NBA off-seasons typically last more than four months. The upcoming season will not be played in a bubble, but the league is asking players to avoid bars and other risky places and situations. That's not exactly the lifestyle Harden is known for – not by a longshot.

"While in their team's home market, team personnel will be prohibited from going to bars, lounges or clubs, from attending live entertainment or sports events, from using gyms, spas or pools, or from participating in social gatherings with more than 15 people," stated the NBA outline for the 2020-2021.

And it doesn't get much better on the road.

"On the road, players, coaches and staff will be permitted to dine outside their hotels if the restaurants provide outdoor dining, have fully privatized indoor rooms, or have met requirements to be formally approved by the league and the players' union. The NBA and NBAPA will work to provide a list of at least three approved restaurants in each market."

Say what you want about Harden, but once he tests negative three more times, he will return to the unstoppable offensive force we have come to know and once loved. Harden is entering a new chapter in his career. There is a new GM, a new coach, new teammates, and a new style of play. Before fans trash him, they need to walk a mile in his basketball shoes - $94 on sale this week at adidas.com.

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Houston loses in San Francisco

Astros drop back-and-forth middle game to Giants to even series

Houston's offense couldn't keep up with the Giants on Saturday. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

With the impressive win in the opener to start the series, the Astros entered Saturday's middle game against the Giants with an opportunity to not just secure the series but surpass San Francisco for the best record in the league. They'd have to wait to take that crown, as the Giants would out-slug the Astros to even the series.

Final Score: Giants 8, Astros 6

Astros' Record: 64-41, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jay Jackson (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Blake Taylor (2-3)

Teams trade blows early, Giants chase Greinke out early

The teams traded blows early in this one, with the Giants tagging Zack Greinke with six runs, all on homers. The first was a solo shot in the bottom of the second to start the scoring before hitting one in each inning through the fourth: two-run blasts in the third and fourth, then a go-ahead solo shot in the bottom of the fifth, putting them ahead 6-5 at the time. Greinke would face one more batter, allowing a single to end his lackluster day: 4.0 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 4 HR, 93 P.

Houston's offense kept things close to try and keep Greinke in a position to win, going up 3-1 in the third on a two-run Aledmys Diaz homer and another coming in on an error. After San Francisco scored four unanswered to make it 5-3, Diaz homered again in the top of the fifth to cut the deficit to one run before Yuli Gurriel would tie it with an RBI double.

Astros stay in it, but Giants even the series by winning the slug-fest

With Greinke exiting with no outs in the fifth, Houston handed the ball to Phil Maton, acquired in the recent Myles Straw trade, to make his debut for his new team. He worked himself into a jam, allowing a single and hitting a batter to load the bases with one out, but was able to get back-to-back strikeouts to strike out the side and strand all three runners, keeping it a one-run game.

That proved pivotal in the top of the sixth, as with two outs, Martin Maldonado would launch a game-tying solo homer, making it 6-6. Blake Taylor took over out of the bullpen in the bottom of the inning but would face just three batters, getting two outs while leaving one on as Dusty Baker moved on to Cristian Javier. Javier would watch the Giants retake the lead, getting back-to-back singles to bring in a run and make it 7-6.

Javier stayed in the game in the bottom of the seventh, allowing a leadoff single but erasing it by striking out the next three batters. Still a 7-6 game in the bottom of the eighth, Yimi Garcia made his Astros debut but did not keep the score there, allowing a leadoff solo homer to make it a two-run game. The 8-6 score would go final as Houston's offense came up empty again in the top of the ninth, setting up a rubber game in the finale.

Up Next: The series finale will get underway at 3:05 PM Central on Sunday in San Francisco. Luis Garcia (7-5, 3.19 ERA) will take the mound for Houston, going opposite Logan Webb (4-3, 3.36 ERA) for the Giants.

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