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Debut of Wall-Harden pairing shows Rockets' potential

Houston's star backcourt combines for 55 points to power the Rockets to their first win of the 2020-21 season.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

John Wall played 36 minutes in his debut, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds and nine assists.

Hold up on the trade talk.

That may likely be the sentiment wafting through the streets in Houston after its 122-119 win against the Sacramento Kings, as we all finally witnessed Thursday how James Harden would mesh with the team’s new pieces in their first game together.

“It was just a grind-it-out, tough, find-a-way-to-win game,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said, “and luckily we have the players that are able to do it.”

Houston didn’t for its first two games with COVID-19 protocols postponing the season opener, and pushing John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Gordon (and Mason Jones) into seven-day quarantines. That left the Rockets to sputter out the gates to an 0-2 start. Harden averaged 39 points in those contests, with Christian Wood averaging 27 ppg for a team barely able to fulfill even minimum roster requirements to play an NBA game.

So, the underlying smile printing through Silas’ grey mask made plenty of sense after the game.

Having captured his first victory as an NBA coach, Silas finally presided over a near-complete Rockets squad playing its first game together that flashed the start of a potentially bright future with one of the league’s most lethal scorers (Harden) headlining a scrappy group with something to prove. The grit was evident in Thursday night’s game that featured 19 lead changes.

James Harden and John Wall delivered in their first game together.

“Once we get a rhythm and guys get into their roles, and find out the best fit for the team, we’ll be even better,” Harden said. “But I’m happy for in the last six minutes when it was time to get stops, we did. Then offensively, we executed.”

With 3:48 left to play, De’Aaron Fox knocked down a pair of free throws to put Sacramento up by four points. From there, Houston outscored the Kings 16-9 with Harden pouring in 14 of his 16 fourth-quarter points during the run. In fewer than three minutes, Houston embarked on a 12-2 run paced by Harden racking up 10 points and dishing an assist to Wood for the other bucket.

“It’s remarkable, man,” Wood said of Harden. “What he does on the floor, the way he operates, it’s crazy. I couldn’t really explain it to you. I don’t really know what James Harden’s ceiling is. Playing with him, he makes me look great. I’m gonna keep setting as many picks for him as I can.”

Harden would finish with a game-high 33 points to go with eight assists, while Wall — playing in his first game in more than two years — contributed 22 points and nine dimes. Wood added 21 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots, and Danuel House Jr. chipped in 11 points.

Starting power forward P.J. Tucker didn’t attempt a shot or score a point, but he shined on defense with critical stops, three steals and a pair of blocked shots to go with six rebounds.

“Very impressed,” Silas said. “We were kind of in and out of the game. We had our highs and our lows keeping our composure, fighting back, dealing with adversity and all of those things we did tonight, and we came up with a win. James obviously was great down the stretch. P.J. Tucker made some huge plays. That last group was really good; John Wall, obviously.”

Defending Fox most of the night, Wall limited him to 3-for-8 shooting and seven points as Fox finished with 22 points on 9-for-23 shooting.

John Wall was feeling good after his long-awaited 2020-21 debut.

“We have a lot of veteran guys, and we have some guys that are superstars in this league,” Wall said. “We’ve found ways to try to get better with each other because I’m used to certain things being from my old team. James is used to things being a way with him, and then DeMarcus being where he was at. So, we’re just trying to figure out game by game. We all just try to be positive.

“We tell ourselves if we go through a drought, we turn the ball over or don’t make shots, don’t get down on ourselves or try to do it individually. Just stay together as a group. I think we did a great job of that because there was a point, I think, in the fourth quarter we were up, they came back and took the lead. We could’ve just folded there. But we kept making runs and getting stops.”

Houston’s bench contributed, too, as Gordon (17 points on 50% shooting) led all reserves in scoring en route to the Rockets’ backups outscoring the Kings’ 35-28. Playing in his first regular-season game since April 9, 2019, Cousins scored eight points on 3 of 5 shooting (1-for-2 on 3-pointers) while contributing three assists.

Interestingly, Harden, Wall and Cousins own a combined 17 NBA All-Star appearances. That’s more firepower at Harden’s disposal than he ever experienced in his first eight seasons paired unsuccessfully in separate instances with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

Game recap: Rockets 122, Kings 119

That’s not even accounting for sign-and-trade gem Wood. He has proven to be a monster over the first three games in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations, possessing the range to shoot 40% from deep this season, not to mention the defensive versatility to guard on the perimeter.

Then there’s the depth featuring Sterling Brown, consummate hustler Jae’Sean Tate, Gordon, Ben McLemore and David Nwaba.

“I’ve been telling the media before that the sky’s the limit for this team. This is our first game all together,” Wood said. “I liked the way we played. We came with great energy. Guys were clicking, and we’ve just got to keep it up. I love it man. I’m happy to be here in Houston.”

But is Harden, even after all the feel-good vibes emanating from Thursday’s showing? It’s well documented that Harden has reportedly requested a trade from Houston, with the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics reportedly lining up as potential suitors.

Harden certainly wasn’t showing his hand when speaking matter-of-factly regarding the new supporting cast expected to alleviate the pressure on him.

“They did a really good job,” Harden said. “They were very aggressive throughout the course of the game; didn’t stop. We need that from top to bottom. It’s gonna be very, very important. That’s what makes a complete team.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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