A loss that doesn't matter

What to take away from Houston's first televised scrimmage

Photo by Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets played their first NBA-sanctioned scrimmage Friday night against the Toronto Raptors and came up short (94-83). Fortunately for Houston, this was an exhibition game and they really let their foot off the gas with guard Russell Westbrook sitting the entire second half and James Harden sitting for the fourth quarter. I have a feeling people aren't going to crucify the Rockets for this one. However, that doesn't mean there aren't things to take away from Houston's first televised game in four months.

1. Russell Westbrook and James Harden look ready to go

His shooting as a whole may have been subpar, but Russell Westbrook looked spectacular in the first half, logging 10 points and 9 rebounds in just 15 minutes. He looked fast, springy, and more importantly, did not look like someone who was recently cleared of COVID-19. As a reminder, COVID-19 can cause breathing problems and lung scarring that can persist after recovery, but if that was the case, Westbrook certainly didn't show it in his first night out.

"He looked pretty athletic, didn't he?" head coach Mike D'Antoni joked after the game. "He must've been working on his athleticism."

Westbrook set the bar low when he returned to practice Wednesday when he suggested that he didn't know whether or not he could make a layup, but he certainly looked as fast and bouncy as ever Friday night.

"I'll be alright," said Westbrook after the game."I'm just trying to make sure that we're in a rhythm as a team. I'll find my way."

Oh, and James Harden looked incredible. Harden only played through three quarters (25 minutes), but he was able to put up 24 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals on 61.9% true shooting. He was making his threes (3 of 7), he was drawing fouls (9 of 10 from the charity stripe), and he was making the extra pass. He looked like James Harden.

The only notable thing is he seemed to make an effort to move the ball a lot Friday night. In fact, the Rockets as a team were doing a pretty good job at moving the ball and finding open three-pointers in transition (16 of first 25 field goals were assisted). It made a fairly meaningless game be pretty entertaining.

This may be seem like a dumb takeaway, but every year, there's a team that starts with their star player(s) out of shape and the Rockets don't have to worry about being that team.

2. Eric Gordon will be the starting small forward

This isn't really a game-specific takeaway, but more of something important to note going forward. There has long been debate as to who would be the better starter this season - Eric Gordon or Danuel House. However, Mike D'Antoni was surprisingly firm when he was asked about who would be the starting small forward pre-game and he maintained that stance post-game.

D'Antoni said he would like to have Gordon play 30 to 32 minutes a game and that it becomes difficult to do that when the 31-year-old guard is resting for the first 6 minutes of every half.

"He only has four minutes of rest in those 36 minutes [left over]," said D'Antoni. "It's just better for him physically that he get on the floor for the first six minutes. I [also] think he's better on the floor with Russell, James, P.J., and Covington."

Gordon didn't have the best first outing (11 points, 4 turnovers, 2 of 8 shooting from three-point range), but he didn't look to be bothered physically which is an encouraging sign considering the knee injuries he's dealt with this season.

For what it's worth, Danuel House looked awesome off the bench, logging 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals on 7 of 11 shooting from the field and 3 of 6 shooting from three-point range. House has had moments this season where he looks surprisingly capable with the basketball in his hands and he had another one of those tonight with a coast-to-coast floater.

3. The Rockets still have a ways to go with their transition defense

Typically, a team as small as the Rockets should find strength in their transition defense. After all, that's one of the benefits of going small in the first place - not having to worry about laboring 7-footers getting back down the court. However, the Rockets were 23rd in points allowed after turnovers and it appears to still be an area of struggle. The Rockets allowed 15 fast break points (6 of 8 from the field) in the first half alone. For the game, they allowed 25 of these points, which would be the worst transition defense in the NBA by a significant margin.

4. The television product was...good? And the teams liked it too

So this was the big question all summer: How would a televised basketball event look without fans? As it turns out, the games have been fine. It helps to have good play-by-play guys on the broadcast to help distract from the noise of squeaky sneakers, but other than that, you're not going to find a complaint from me. Due to the pace, this game was actually one of the more enjoyable ones this week.

And the teams seem to enjoy it too.

"It's about like practice," said Mike D'Antoni. "You hear everything [on the court] and you can talk from the bench and they hear you. You know I was talking to James [Harden] and it's a great atmosphere. It's fun to play there. This is pure basketball and they're hooping."

It's almost surprising that with all the lead up to games without fans, there's been little discussion about how much easier it would be to communicate without crowd noise. Players are chirping at each other, defensive assignments are easier to yell out, and even bench players are able to help quarterback the defense from their spots.

"It's pretty dope," said James Harden after the game. "I think this environment - I didn't know what to expect. Now being here in this enviornment, it's pretty cool."

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With the disappointing loss in extra innings late the night before, the Astros returned to RingCentral Coliseum on Saturday afternoon to try and even the series against the A's, who now owned a 3.5 game lead in the AL West over Houston. Here is a quick rundown of the middle game of the series:

Final Score: A's 3, Astros 1.

Record: 6-8, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Frankie Montas (2-1, 1.57 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Framber Valdez (0-2, 2.04 ERA).

Valdez does his job

Framber Valdez ran into stress early on Saturday, facing trouble in the bottom of the first inning. It started with a leadoff solo home run, putting Oakland up 1-0 before they would record an out. He later allowed back-to-back one-out singles to rack up his pitch count in the frame but would limit the damage to the single run.

He was able to re-focus and settle in during the following innings, getting quick, scoreless innings in the next four. In the bottom of the sixth, a leadoff groundball that likely should have been the first out was instead a single that would come back to bite Houston. That runner stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw, then scored on an RBI-groundout, doubling Oakland's lead to 2-0. Valdez would go one more inning, giving Houston precisely what they needed by helping give their exhausted bullpen a break. His final line: 7.0 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 1 HR.

Houston's offense unable to get anything going

Unfortunately for Houston, Frankie Montas was even more efficient on the other side. Houston was only able to notch two hits against him over seven innings while Montas only had to throw 86 pitches over that span. Oakland would go to their bullpen in the top of the eighth, with the Astros getting just a single in the inning.

Nivaldo Rodriguez would take over for Valdez in the bottom of the eighth and allowed a solo home run to make it 3-0 before completing the inning. Houston would get a leadoff double by Kyle Tucker to start the top of the ninth, and he would come around to score on an RBI-single by Alex Bregman. That's as close as Houston would get, though, as Oakland would finish off the win to secure the series and extend Houston's losing streak to four games.

Up Next: The final game of this series and Houston's nine-game road trip will be on Sunday at 3:10 PM Central. Jesus Luzardo (0-0, 2.31 ERA) will make a start for the A's while Cristian Javier (1-0, 1.42 ERA) will look to continue his success in 2020 for the Astros.

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