A day removed from participating in his first team workout, Houston Rockets star James Harden predictably exhibited a little rust Tuesday night in his preseason debut at the Toyota Center.
Harden scored 12 points on 3-for-10 shooting in 21 minutes with four assists, three rebounds and two steals, as first-year head coach Stephen Silas finally caught the first glimpse of his full squad in a 112-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
“It meant a lot,” Silas said. “You kind of have to ask those guys, but it seemed like the camaraderie was pretty good, and to have a talented player out there on the floor doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s an adjustment for some guys, but the more talent you have in the NBA, the more games you can win, really. So, it was good.
“The detail part of it,” Silas continues, “guys learning how they’re gonna be able to play together and with each other is something that’s gonna be a work in progress and something we’re just gonna have to watch a lot of film and really figure out the best combinations, figure out where guys need the basketball, and making sure that everybody’s included in what we’re doing. That’s gonna be a task that we have. We don’t have a long time to kind of figure it all out, but we’ve got to get to the details.”
Silas admitted to not having enough experience with Harden to know whether the star guard was rusty in his exhibition debut, and the coach couldn’t gauge how close the former MVP is to achieving regular-season form.James Harden’s first points of the preseason came on a step-back 3-pointer.
“Obviously, I’ve played against him so many times over the last countless amount of years,” Silas said. “But I can’t answer that question. I don’t know how close he is. I haven’t been around him enough to know the answer.”
Harden reported to Rockets training camp on Dec. 8, but he wasn’t cleared to work out with the team until Monday, after testing negative for COVID-19 on six consecutive days. Harden missed Houston’s first two exhibition outings against the Chicago Bulls, as did P.J. Tucker and Sterling Brown, who also made their preseason debuts against the Spurs.
Still, Silas wasted no time inserting Harden and Tucker in the starting lineup. Silas initially said before the game that he planned to play both approximately 20 minutes, while limiting Brown to somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 minutes.
Harden and Tucker played 21 minutes apiece, while Brown stayed on the floor for 24 minutes.
“He was good,” Silas said of Harden. “He’s obviously a great player and [he] can do so many things on the floor on and off the ball. Defensively, he has good hands and makes plays, and is smart. So, to have him out there was great.”
Harden and Tucker quickly made the most of their brief time. Harden nailed a step-back 3-pointer on his first attempt of the night, then drew a foul launching another shot from deep on Houston’s next trip down the court. Harden would knock down all three free throws to push his total to six points less than three minutes into the game.
Tucker, meanwhile, splashed his first attempt on a corner 3-pointer even before that, and finished the night with 8 points a rebound and an assist, while Brown contributed 2 points, 6 rebounds and a pair of steals.
“It felt great to be out there with those guys again,” guard Ben McLemore said. “It’s always great to have a full team and your guys to go out there and compete with. We’re all excited to have everybody back.”
Although Harden and Tucker played sparingly, their exhibition debuts at least temporarily lifted some of the dark clouds hanging over the organization in recent weeks. Harden has reportedly requested a trade, while Tucker — in the final year of his contract — has expressed disappointment about the team not extending an extension offer.
Traded to Houston for Russell Westbrook and a first-round pick on Dec. 2, new point guard John Wall played the team’s first two preseason games with the ball primarily in his hands. Wall admitted the return of Harden changed that dynamic somewhat, but also provided optimism about what the Rockets might be able to do this season offensively.
Silas pointed out “it can be really good to have two dynamic ballhandlers on the floor.”
Wall finished with 15 points and three assists in his first game alongside Harden.
“At first it was a little different for me because I’m so used to having the ball,” Wall said. “But we were just talking throughout the game, and just talking on the sidelines. At times, if he got the ball, I could find ways to run out and get outlet passes from him, and at times still let him be aggressive. I told him, ‘I’m not worried about trying to score 30 or 40. My job is to try to be the point guard, be the leader out there, try to get guys shots, and also be aggressive for myself to open up the floor for the offense. At the same time, we know who you are being James Harden and being an elite scorer in this league. So, play your game no matter what.’”
Harden wasn’t made available to the media after Tuesday’s debut, and Wall said that he isn’t trying to dissuade his new teammate in his efforts to move on to a new team.
“I’ve been cool with James before we even became teammates [and] never thought this idea would even come of us being on the same team,” Wall said. “At the end of the day, he’s gonna do what’s best for him, and the organization is gonna do what’s best for them also. So, the most important thing is when we step on that floor we’re focusing ourselves on basketball. I don’t try to ask him about that because that’s his personal business. All I worry about is what we can do to make this Rockets team the best it can be while everybody’s here and move forward with that.”
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