Rockets-Pelicans preseason in name only

SHANGHAI — There were shimmying dancers, furry mascots, a half-court shooting contest and a crowd that went into a near frenzy jostling for inexpensive trinkets tossed into the stands.

In other words, it looked like an ordinary game any place in the NBA. Except that this was a far side of the world. The fact that the 10th edition of the NBA Global Games in China had a more typical feel than a touring circus act was, after all, the whole point of the exercise.

Before the Rockets beat the Pelicans 123-117 Sunday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Shanghai Media Group president Wang Jianjung had already announced new business agreements and talked about the deepening relationship between the league and the most populous nation on the planet.

While James Harden scored 26 points and Eric Gordon added 24 to lead Houston in what was a preseason game on the schedule, the atmosphere inside sold-out Mercedes-Benz Arena showed the progress that has been made over the past dozen years.

When the Rockets first came to China in 2004, it was mostly to celebrate the homecoming of the native son Yao Ming, who had been the first player from his country selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

Yao’s face was everywhere, from the side of buses and taxis to giant billboards on Nanjing Road and every pasted into virtually every empty space in a city of 24 million people. It was all about Yao, all the time.

Now five years after he retired and five weeks after he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Yao returned to the court in his hometown. But this time he was sitting in a front row seat wearing a black business suit and receiving polite applause rather than shrieking adulation.

Meanwhile the Pelicans and Rockets went at each other right from the opening tipoff with a level of intensity and hustle that belied the status as a game that wouldn’t count in the regular season standings. There was real energy in the building.

“We wanted to treat it like that. It does help to have energy of the crowd up,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “You have Yao Ming sitting over there as a Rocket. So we should have some kind of advantage.”

New Rocket Ryan Anderson, who came over from the Pelicans as a free agent this summer, stepped in to take a pair of charges in the first 13 minutes. New Orleans’ Anthony Davis attacked the glass and the rims to pull down rebounds and hammered home an early dunk.

Of course, both teams had reasons to want to establish themselves early after disappointing 2015-16 seasons. The Rockets squabbled their way to a 41-41 record, were bounced in the first round of the playoffs and are now trying to get back on track under their new head coach. Meanwhile the injured Pelicans, who got 25 points from E’Twaun Moore and 23 from Davis on Sunday, were 30-52 and did not even make the playoffs.

Yao was joined in the front row by his former Chinese national teammate Mengke Bateer. Ex-NBA players Kenny Smith, Gary Payton, A.C. Green, Shane Battier and Vin Baker were also on hand to take bows.

It was so much like a regular NBA game that when Harden stepped to the free throw line early in the second quarter, the familiar chant of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” came from the crowd — only in Mandarin.

The Rockets wore red jerseys with the team name spelled out in Chinese characters, just as they’ve occasionally done back home in Houston. The Pelicans mostly wore a look of determination with something to prove in a new season, and coach Alvin Gentry spent most of the night relentlessly riding the referees.

What the fully-engaged crowd of 18,000 got was a fully competitive, thoroughly entertaining show. The outcome was still hanging in balance with the Rockets leading 119-117 inside the last 30 seconds. But the Pelicans’ Dante Cunningham missed a wide-open look at a 3-pointer on the right wing and the Rockets got a win that had to be earned.

“I think when you play in the preseason there is really a ladder that you try step by step to put into play,” said Gentry. “The first game is about conditioning, see what kind of shape you’re in. The second game is about execution. This third game really is high energy because you’re halfway through preseason and it’s time to get ready.”

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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