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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The power struggle continues. Photo by Getty Images.

Boy, with the recent blizzard of negative publicity – searing magazine cover stories with headlines blasting "Houston Has a Problem" and "The Chaplain Who Won a Power Struggle and Plunged a Franchise into Chaos" – I'll bet the Houston Texans wished they had a seasoned, respected and award-winning media director to handle damage control.

Oh yeah, that's exactly what they had in Amy Palcic, but she was fired last year. Reason: she "wasn't the right culture fit."

What exactly is the Houston Texans culture these days? Apparently the culture is players disliking and distrusting the team executive specifically charged with managing the team's culture. It's that same executive whose resume has more fudging than the Keebler Cookie Company. It's that executive who's accused of authorizing illegal practices and hiring private eyes to follow players in their private activities. It's that executive who's accused of intimidating employees who trash him to the media and threatening to sue media outlets. It's that executive who imposes his religious fervor on lower-ranked employees. It's that executive who has created a culture where gifted quarterback Deshaun Watson is said to want a trade out of Houston.

That executive is Jack Easterby - the backstabbing, butt-smooching BS'er who seems to have a Svengali hold on Texans chairman Cal McNair.

If it comes down to one stays and one has to go between Watson and Easterby … hmmm, let's see. Deshaun Watson threw for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. Jack Easterby, zero and zero.

Last week, Texans legend Andre Johnson, who usually speaks up less than the magician Teller, tweeted: "Since Jack Easterby walk into the building nothing good has happened. For some reason someone can't seem to see what's going on. Pathetic!!!"

That "someone" would be Texans chairman Cal McNair, who continues to support Easterby despite all the accusations and revelations hurled Easterby's way.

By the way, Easterby has not sued any media outlet that is publishing stories about his bullying and sneakiness. And he won't sue because that last thing he wants is to be put in a witness chair and swear to tell the truth.

In the past 12 months, with Easterby sticking his nose in McNair's ear, the Texans have managed to alienate and infuriate superstar Watson: trade All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and create a losing, uninspired clubhouse that has favorite son J.J. Watt wanting a trade to leave his beloved Houston.

It's not like Easterby is some mad genius who somehow produces spectacular results despite his unorthodox tactics. The Texans finished 2020 with a disastrous 4-12 record, with little to show for it, not even a top draft pick to honor their futility. The Texans are clearly in need of divine intervention, and not from huckster Easterby, whose degree is in sports management from Newberry College. Easterby is only dimples and wavy hair short of being a TV preacher.

You can't deny that Easterby is inspiration. He recently inspired a public protest on the sidewalk outside NRG Stadium and signs swaying over Southwest Freeway with the same message: #FireJackEasterby. Watson asked his supporters not to attend the rally due to COVID precaution.

Then there's the case of Deshaun Watson v. Cal McNair.

Watson was born into an economically disadvantaged family and has worked for, and deserves, every penny he is paid. He is a champion.

Cal McNair found the Houston Texans under his Christmas tree in 2018 after his father Texans original owner Bob McNair died.

Watson is an extremely bright and sensitive man who is deeply involved in social issues off the field. Last year, during the summer of racial upheaval in America, he led the charge to have the name of a former slave owner removed from a building on his alma mater Clemson's campus.

McNair hardly ever speaks in public and his stumbling, confused performance at a press conference to announce the hire of general manager Nick Caserio showed why. It's rare when a team owner has to apologize after making what should have been a happy statement promising fans a better future. However, if a stage production of the Beverly Hillbillies ever goes to Broadway, we've got our Jethro.

Many times when a player gets into a public spat with a team owner, it's a dumb jock player vs. the super-smart businessman who owns a billion-dollar company. It's usually over money. And the public typically thinks, "just get rid of the ungrateful, overpaid and greedy player."

Not this time. Watson already got his – four years at $156 million. This is a war of morality. Watson is the hero here, McNair the fool being played by Easterby, who like Cassius is Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, "has a lean and hungry look."

If it came to a public vote between Watson and McNair (Easterby), Watson's landslide win would rival Kim Jong-Un in North Korea … or LeAnn Rimes on The Masked Singer.

It's unfair to call McNair and Easterby polarizing figures because polarizing implies that there are two sides to the issue.

There is only one side. Houston loves Deshaun Watson and wants McNair to sell the team, right after he fires Easterby.

Seemingly the only defender rushing to Easterby's side is a Twitter account allegedly owned by Easterby under a fake name. If it is a burner account, Easterby has a whole lot of faith in himself.

Although football insiders say that Watson is all but out the door at NRG Stadium, there is still a chance that McNair could save the day, and do what is needed to keep Watson in Texans' gear. And that would be to fire Easterby. Now.

Sadly, given McNair's repeated pledges of loyalty to Easterby and insistence that criticism of Easterby is unwarranted, Watson's leaving Houston gets more likely each day. Andre Johnson had it right … "pathetic!!!"

Three exclamation points.

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