Duo fail to launch Rockets' blast-off

Russell Westbrook looking to pass under a basket guarded by the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (No. 34). He could not drag the Houston Rockets to a win in his first game since his summer move from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Russell Westbrook looking to pass under a basket guarded by the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (No. 34). He could not drag the Houston Rockets to a win in his first game since his summer move from the Oklahoma City Thunder.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Anticipated Harden-Westbrook tag team falters against Eastern Conference finalists Bucks

HOUSTON • After a lengthy silence, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey became an active social media user again on Thursday night, tweeting about his team before their season-opener against the Milwaukee Bucks.

He then watched the bulk of the game at the Toyota Centre, but was treated to a mixed and, ultimately, disappointing display from their new star pairing of James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The Rockets had been hoping for a statement victory over last term's Eastern Conference finalists and the team with the best regular-season record (60-22), and to finally move away from the Chinese boycott sparked by Morey's now-deleted tweet backing the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The start of this second marriage for the Harden-Westbrook tandem, reunited for the first time since the Oklahoma City Thunder traded the former to Houston in October 2012, drew a sell-out crowd of 18,055, including several fans sporting pro-Hong Kong slogans.

The Rockets' marquee personalities did their utmost to drag the focus back to basketball - and all the hoopla that goes with it in the National Basketball Association.

But while Houston played faster than they did last season, they were unable to finish off the Bucks - even after NBA's Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled out after posting a triple-double (30 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists).

Neither Harden nor Westbrook, both 30, shot the ball well in Milwaukee's 117-111 triumph, combining to make just nine of 30 shots from the field.

Worse yet, Houston squandered a 16-point lead, then failed to take advantage after Antetokounmpo picked up his sixth foul with 5min 18sec remaining.

  • HOW THE REUNION WENT

  • 67%

    RUSSELL WESTBROOK

    Sixteen of the new Rocket guard's team-high 24 points came in the final quarter.

    12.5%

    JAMES HARDEN

    The Rockets main man's three-point shooting - one of eight, marginally worse than his dismal field goal percentage of 15.4 per cent or two of 13.

    2

    THE PARTNERSHIP

    Assists between the pair, with Harden setting up Westbrook twice. 

Westbrook led the Rockets with 24 points - 16 coming in the final quarter - but fellow All-Star guard Harden shot two-for-13 from the field and missed seven of his eight three-point attempts for 19 points on the night.

He later accepted blame for the defeat, saying "this one's on me", while Westbrook insisted "we'll figure it out".

However, the scepticism around the league about whether two players so accustomed to having the ball in their hands could form an elite partnership at this stage of their careers appeared to be justified, and the pair had an animated conversation in the first half that set off a social media frenzy.

While Westbrook later chided the media for making too much of the incident, insisting "nobody around the world" can "get in between" the bond he and Harden have built "because we've had it for too long", Mike D'Antoni is aware they have to gel fast amid his own uncertain future.

The Rockets coach, who is in the final season of his original four-year contract, said: "You tell me what coach in the NBA is not on the hot seat. They're all on the hot seat. You're always on it. That's life. It doesn't affect me."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2019, with the headline 'Duo fail to launch rockets' blast-off'. Print Edition | Subscribe