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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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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