A NEW LOOK

How Rockets players are slowly adjusting to Russell Westbrook

Though opening night didn't go as planned for Houston, Rockets fans did get a taste as to what Russell Westbrook could provide to an already potent offense. The Rockets were noticeably faster (27 fast break points), more athletic (won the rebounding battle 57-53), and had someone who could take over the game with reckless abandon when James Harden had an off night. After a somewhat murky preseason where it wasn't quite clear if the Rockets had acquired a deteriorated version of the 2016-17 MVP, Westbrook put those worries to bed early on night one, finishing with 24 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block on decent efficiency.

"He's a gamer," said Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni at Friday's practice. "When the lights come on, that's when he's the best. He plays from athleticism, just a competitive, ferocious kind of nature."

Westbrook's chaotic mastery particularly came to form with the second unit, where Westbrook is slowly starting to get his timing down with his new teammates. For a while, it seemed Westbrook was moving a rate that was almost too fast for Rockets players who were used to the deliberate pace they played at last year. After a few games under their belt, their timing with Westbrook is slowly starting to come around.

"You don't average a triple double for no reason," said D'Antoni. D'Antoni believes Westbrook will feast off of opposing second units or tired first units with the way Houston staggers him with Harden.

"When you play fast, guys are going to be open at some point in time," said guard Eric Gordon. "Any defense is not going to be able to stop all of it. He's a threat by himself and whenever he's playing fast, he creates for everybody else."

It's a change of pace, but the Rockets view it as a welcome change of pace. D'Antoni particularly, has always wanted to play fast. Last season was a delineation from his core values, but believed it was the best way to go about things with the personal the Rockets had to work with. This year, he's getting back to those core values and he seems more enthusiastic about the possibilities with this newly-framed roster.

"It's important for who we are," said D'Antoni. "We were really good with Chris [Paul] and James [Harden] getting to half-court and figuring things out and going a little bit iso, especially the year before. And they were really good at it, so that's how you do it. I didn't think the pace was that important as long as we were efficient. Well, this is a whole different beast. With Russell, if you can play at that pace and that's a natural pace, I like it better. I think it's better for the team. But you don't just do it, it's got to come natural."

Rockets players, now better adjusted to Westbrook, also seem to prefer this pace as they believe it serves their skill sets better.

"I think we've always tried to play a faster play of pace, but his pace is a whole nother level and it helps our team a lot because it draws a lot of attention," said forward P.J. Tucker "Guys really like this way. It equals a lot of open shots on the perimeter and dunks at the rim. So I think it's something we'll continue to get better at, but right now, it was good last night."

It's only one game, but the Rockets closed last night with a pace of 109.8, over 13 possessions per game higher than any of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (the highest being 2007-08 which was 96.7).

"Six seconds or less, baby," Mike D'Antoni joked as he left the media scrum.

It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't ugly either. That just seems par for the course whenever the Rockets play the Pelicans. Regardless of injuries on either side, these two teams just always manage to play each other competitively, whistle to whistle. Houston pulled out ahead tonight, but it wasn't without a fight.

Jrue Holiday and Josh Hart in particular, did an excellent job defending James Harden tonight, forcing him to shoot 3 for 11 from deep. The Pelicans often swarmed Harden and forced him to give up the basketball. It helps the Eric Gordon is starting to find a rhythm from three-point range (4 of 7 tonight and 3 of 7 Saturday against Chicago). Westbrook was also forceful offensively to help pick up for Harden's early struggles.

Clint Capela has really stepped it up for Houston these past four games (11 points, 20 rebounds, and 2 blocks tonight on 5 of 6 shooting). Capela has managed to grab 13 or more rebounds in Houston's last four outings. Capela had struggled greatly to start the season, forcing head coach Mike D'Antoni to rely on smaller units with P.J. Tucker at center. However, the Rockets aren't going to go as far as they want in the postseason if they aren't getting a strong 30 minutes a game from Clint Capela, so it's encouraging that he's starting to play well.

The Rockets took a 7-point lead after a surge from Westbrook to end the first quarter and for the most part, held that lead for the duration of the game. New Orleans made a strong push in the fourth quarter the battle back, but at that point it was too little too late.

Star of the game: James Harden didn't have a the best three-point shooting game, but still managed to log 39 point, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in the process on 62.6% true shooting. He was effect at driving to the rim, drawing fouls, getting floaters, and finding shooters. Harden scored 19 of his points in the 4th quarter, effectively dragging Houston to victory despite a strong late push by New Orleans that cut the lead from 17 at one point down to as low as 6.

Honorable mention: Russell Westbrook was dialed in from the first quarter, particularly from mid-range where he scored 12 of his points on 6 of 8 shooting. In a night where Harden was really struggling to gain a rhythm, Westbrook really helped pick up the slack for Houston especially in the units without Harden. Westbrook finished the game with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals on an efficient 57.1% true shooting. It's unlikely Westbrook will shoot that well from mid-range this season, but on nights where he's on like this, the Rockets will gladly take it.

Key moment: Russell Westbrook's stretch to end the first quarter gave the Rockets a 7-point lead and the Pelicans were never able to capture the lead from that point forward. Westbrook scored or assisted on the final 6 points of the quarter (within 56.8 seconds) and was forceful defensively.

Up next: The Rockets return to Houston to play the Los Angeles Clippers at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

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