ROCKETS 98, PACERS 94

Rockets stymie Pacers for third straight victory

James Harden and Clint Capela had big games. Tim Warner/Getty Images

Houston kicked off the first week of November with a matchup against the Indiana Pacers Monday night. As healthy and unsuspended as the team had been all season, Monday provided a perfect opportunity to prove whether or not Houston's woeful start would persist, or their struggles were in fact a result of an unfortunate, injury-riddled start to the season.

First quarter

Signs were encouraging as Houston exploded out of the gate offensively. Shades of last season were evident as Capela crashed the glass and slammed down alley oops, while Harden poured in from three. Of note would be just how much trust has been given to the two rookies Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein, both of whom hustled hard. Pacers guard Victor Oladipo kept it close, but Harden's 11 points helped to keep the Pacers at bay. Rockets led 29-22 at the end.

Second quarter

Harden continued to do Harden things, but unfortunately he was virtually the only offense Houston was able to reliably muster. Oladipo refused to be stopped, and with help from Domantas Sabonis the Pacers reclaimed the lead. Chris Paul, Gerald Green, and Carmelo Anthony were held to a total of zero points for the half, yet Houston only trailed by two, 55-53. Harden with 18 points, Oladipo matching with 16.

Third quarter

The Pacers began to clamp down on defense, forcing a slew of Rockets turnovers. A continued woeful performance from Houston beyond the arc provided zero relief as the Pacers continued to assert themselves. The Rockets would slog through a 20-16 Pacers-led third quarter to push the lead to 75-69.

Fourth quarter

The thing is, Houston's defense never really slumped throughout their matchup with the 7-3 Pacers. The problem rested solely in their complete ineptitude to convert wide open three-point looks throughout the contest. The narrative finally changed in the fourth quarter, that is, as the Rockets ignited from three while simultaneously ratcheting down on defense. The 29-19 fourth would prove to be enough for Houston to escape the late game foul/free throw game with a victory. Harden finished the game with 28 points and 6 assists, while Oladipo matched for the Pacers with 28 points and 6 rebounds.

Takeaways:

Rookie confidence: Coach Mike D'Antoni has opted in the past three games to lean on his rookie tandem over more experienced players and the result can be seen directly in the win/loss column. During the current three-game winning streak, the Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark rookie combo has trounced Michael Carter-Williams and Marquese Chriss by an 82-6 minutes distribution. Let the kids do work.

Extra Capela: Clint Capela finished the night with a respectable 18 points and 10 rebounds. The effort marked his sixth straight double-double, which is the longest streak of his career.

True test: The Rockets are suddenly riding a three-game winning streak, but the rest of the week will be a true litmus test as to whether Houston's rough start was merely an aberration. Thursday Houston clashes with the Oklahoma City Thunder before a Saturday Spurs match and a Sunday Pacers rematch. If Houston can string together a winning week, it will do wonders to assuage a rightfully nervous fan base.

Next up:

Houston at Oklahoma City, Thursday


 

It started out easily enough. Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out support for protestors in Hong Kong, a since-deleted missive that stated "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."

The reaction was immediate. Owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted out his own response: "Listen....@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://twitter.com/dmorey/status/1180312072027947008"

James Harden apologized. The NBA apologized in its own statement, saying Morey's comments "have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."

Their statement added:

"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together."

Morey himself had to dial it back. In a two part tweet, he said: "I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives. I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA."

That, of course, would not be the end of it.

Swift response

The Rockets immediately lost Chinese sponsors. Their games have been dropped from Chinese TV. The Chinese consulate in Houston weighed in. "We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,'' the office said in a statement.

Even more backlash

After the NBA apologized, the issue got political in the U.S. It even managed to unite politicians on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Republican Ted Cruz tweeted out this:

"As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating."

Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke, who ran against Cruz for senator in Texas, tweeted: "The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment."

Imagine an issue where these two are on the same side.

Political firestorm

Nets owner Joseph Tsai ripped into Morey as well. "When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn't expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened." He said expressing one's opinion "is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities. Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China. The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country's sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable."

The Chinese market is very important to the NBA and its ownership, as the league is heavily invested. China pulling out of the league would be damaging. The NBA knows this. But many see the league's backtracking as a way to preserve the business relationship, a move that seems to contradict most of the league's political stances in the United States, hence the responses from U.S. politicians.

The Chinese government has been very sensitive to the outside interpretations of the protests, and their response to this is in no small part due to that.

What does it all mean?

There are many on the Chinese side calling for Morey to be fired in order to do business with the Rockets again. This won't happen; as much as Fertitta was displeased with the tweet, he is a big Morey supporter. And to fire him would likely cause a serious backlash in Houston, where Rockets fans revere Morey. It would also give the impression that he is siding with Chinese interests over the United States, fair or not. Fertitta is too smart for that. Morey in no way intended to cause such a firestorm. Had he known the response, he would have never tweeted that out.

The problem is, the freedoms we enjoy in the United States do not translate to other countries, especially China, where social media and political views are restricted.

Now what?

Realistically, sports fans - especially the ones in Houston - don't care about any of this. It will only matter to them if Morey were fired, which is not going to happen. Fans care more about the Astros playoffs, Texans with a big win, and how the Rockets will look with Russell Westbrook and and James Harden. The problem is the story has gotten outside the realm of sports, with politicians weighing in and CNN reporting on it. When that happens, hyperbole and political stances become the order of the day. You would hope it would blow over, but time will tell.

One thing is for sure: Morey did not want this. Fertitta and the NBA did not want it. But it has become a firestorm, one that has a lot of levels.

It also goes to one of the dangers of social media; a high-profile person might have a personal Twitter account, but you also represent your organization, and your tweets reflect on them. It also shows the danger of "bumper sticker" tweets, where complicated issues are often foolishly reduced to buzz words. If there is a mistake here, it's that Morey did not recognize he represents the Rockets and NBA. It's obvious he does now.

What happens next is anyone's guess. But if this is like other politically charged topics, it probably will not go away anytime soon.

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