We just saw James Harden and Russell Westbrook‘s first game together as Rockets teammates. What did we learn? Not that much, actually.
Of all the major transactions made this offseason, none seemed to carry as much combined potential risk and reward as the Houston Rockets’ trade for Russell Westbrook. Harden and Westbrook are two of the league’s last three MVPs and two of the most dominant, game-changing guards in NBA history. However, they are also both ball-dominant solo artists who set the stage for everything else happening around them. Watching them coexist, or fail trying, promised to be one of the more interesting plots in an already engaging season. However, following their first game of the season, a heartbreaking 117-111 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, it appears that few, if any questions, about how they would be able to play together have been answered.
The Rockets held a steady lead throughout the first three quarters, including a 16-point lead at multiple points, before the Bucks went on a 13-3 run to start the fourth which gave Milwaukee its first lead of the night. In the final quarter, seemingly everyone on the Rockets apart from Westbrook forgot how to score, with no one besides him making a field goal until there were less than two minutes left in the game. The Bucks got hot and the Rockets went cold at the same time, allowing the Bucks to outscore Houston by 15 in the fourth and seal the victory.
It feels presumptuous to make too much of how the Westbrook-Harden pairing will look moving forward, not merely because we’re only one game into an 82 game season, but because everything else felt off-kilter for the Rockets tonight as the game moved on. Harden was never able to find any rhythm at all, going 2-of-13 from the field even though he was still able to contribute 19 points and 14 assists in spite of his abysmal shooting. And there is no reason to blame Westbrook for Harden’s shooting slump tonight; many of Harden’s missed shots were looks he likes — both step-back 3’s and shots at the rim, but they simply refused to fall.
In fact, it was Westbrook who kept the Rockets alive near the end of the game and he was the sole reason Houston ended up losing by just single-digits. Despite the fact that he only had half as many assists as Harden, his playmaking prowess was on display all night. He led the Rockets in rebounds and, most of the time, immediately started bounding down the court to initiate a fast break.
Accordingly, the most notable shift in the Rockets’ style of play tonight was in their pace of play. Even James Harden, who is best known for his captivating yet often interminable isolation plays on the perimeter, often appeared to be playing in fast-forward, shook out of his more meditative style by Westbrook and his teammates who appeared intent on running throughout. It was a definite, and literal, change of speed for a team that finished 26th in pace last season. Moving forward, such a shift may pay dividends as it could very well increase the amount of open 3’s for the team’s bevy of sharpshooters. Even if Westbrook is not able to necessarily bring out untapped elements of Harden’s game, it already appears as if he can potentially do so for his other, less decorated teammates, while also providing a shot in the arm for the team on those rare nights when Harden himself is struggling.
It would be foolhardy for Rockets fans to panic after tonight’s loss. First, they were playing the Bucks who had the best record in the league last year and still almost won despite not performing all that well. Secondly, no one could really make shots which is not a trend that should continue. James Harden never once shot as poorly last year as he did tonight so the Harden that fans saw tonight is not likely the Harden they will be seeing throughout the next 81 games. Yes, the Rockets were off tonight, but it did not appear to be because of any inherent chemistry issues. Instead, it was just a night where the team shot 36 percent as a whole and collectively lost their touch at the worst possible time. If the Rockets continue this cold streak game after game, then perhaps it would make more sense to wonder about the fit and if it is hurting their offense, but for now, Rockets fans still have every reason to hold on to the optimism they had entering the season.