HOUSTON — The red carpet beamed in front of a team background emblazoned with Houston’s “One Mission” motto, as the players strutted through sporting high fashion, smiling and swaying to the beats of the tunes spun by a DJ stationed nearby.
The flashbulbs popped. The beats thumped down the hall, steps from where the Milwaukee Bucks dressed prior to downing the Rockets, 117-111.
“It’s sad to say, but we’re not gonna win 82 games this year,” said Houston coach Mike D’Antoni. “We’ve got a chance to win 81.”
The truth is all the Rockets’ pre-game glitz gave way to Milwaukee’s grit, partly because of an inconsistent performance from Houston’s new star duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook that led to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks leaving victorious in an opener featuring the MVPs of the last three seasons. Despite the setback, the Rockets viewed the few glimpses of greatness flashed by Harden and Westbrook as signs of what’s to come.
“It would’ve been great to come away with a win, but I think a loss is probably just as good,” Harden said. “We did some really good things out there.”
Not before doing plenty of bad things, though. While Harden and Westbrook combined to connect on just 9 of 30 shots, they put together a total of 21 assists and 23 rebounds as Houston surrendered a 16-point lead at the half that was built despite Harden making just two field goals in the first two quarters.
Then, when Antetokounmpo fouled out with just 5 minutes and 18 seconds remaining after producing a triple-double (30 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists) with the Bucks leading 101-95, Houston failed to capitalize on the reigning MVP’s exit.
Harden shot just 2-for-13 for 19 points (0-for-7 in the second half), while Westbrook led Houston with 24 points, including 16 in the final quarter, despite hitting just 7 of 17 to go with 16 rebounds and 7 assists.
Harden and Westbrook also became embroiled in an animated discussion in the first half that was caught on cameras near the scorer’s table. Westbrook downplayed the notion that the conversation was contentious, and both have said their friendship is more important than any potential bumps in the road they may encounter.
“The animation is because we were talking about something, but don’t deep dive too much into it,” Westbrook said. “Like I told you, there’s nothing that nobody around the world, media, anybody [will] be able to [do to] get in between what we had because we’ve had it for so long.”
The highlight of the duo’s night came in transition with 7:42 remaining, when Harden dished to Westbrook for a dunk that put Houston ahead 95-91, while conjuring memories of their past together, seven years ago in Oklahoma City. The dunk wrapped up five straight points for Westbrook, while alleviating uncertainty for D’Antoni, who said before the game in front of a sellout crowd of 18,055, he was curious to know “what we’ve got” in the locker room.
Westbrook banked a 3-pointer off the glass for his first bucket as a Houston Rocket.
“I thought Russ was a gamer,” D’Antoni said. “When the lights go on, he’s got that competitive spirit, then his athleticism kicks in. He’s like a Rocket out there, no pun intended. I didn’t know what we had before tonight. We can be really good defensively, we can be athletic as hell, we can push the ball. So there’s a lot of good things. We’ve got to tighten a lot of things up, learn how to use the bench, just a lot of little things like that. There was some good stuff out there.”
Some might say it started with the pre-game fashion show that the entire team seemed to enjoy. Harden vowed during the team’s media day in early October that Houston games would feature a red carpet, and the current plan is to keep the tradition alive for the first three games of the season, before turning it into an event for only weekend games the rest of the season.
On this night, Harden walked the red carpet wearing an all-white Helmut Lang outfit, while Westbrook hit the scene in an off-white one-piece jumpsuit with small splotches of paint dashed throughout.
Now, it’s time to make superstar chemistry fashionable for the Rockets. Harden and Westbrook seem to be ahead of the game.
“See, we’re friends, man. We’re boys,” Westbrook said. “That’s the most important part. Basketball’s easy. It’s an easy game. When you care about someone and you want to see them do great…even from a distance [in the past], me and James talked and texted throughout the year. We were both running for MVP. We both were in the MVP room. That’s a blessing man. All the basketball s— is irrelevant, man. It’s a brotherhood first. It’s most important, and that’s all I care about. So, we never disconnected [over those] seven years [we were apart]. We talked all the time. Right now, it’s just easy. Basketball is the easy part.”
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