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It remains too early in the regular season to draw finality from the NBA‘s newest normals. Facades continue to walk among us. Ambiguity is the default abundance. The demand for—and claims of—surety still outstrip the supply.
To that end, the Houston Rockets‘ 116-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night did not reveal anything about the James Harden–Russell Westbrook partnership that begs extended review. It felt routine, if a little too close for comfort.
And hey, this soon into a marriage of high-usage stars that garnered nothing close to consensus support, the Rockets will take it.
Westbrook’s maiden matchup with his former team didn’t even move the emotional needle. That comes later, namely when he returns to Oklahoma City for the first time on Jan. 9.
Except for a brief exchange with Darius Bazley, with whom he never played, Westbrook did little out of the ordinary. He finished with a near triple-double (21 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists), his usual spate of turnovers (five) and some dead-eye stares after finishing above the rim:
He attempted just one three-pointer, which has become out of character for him. So, there’s that.
Harden’s night was similarly unvaried. He lived at the line (21-of-22) en route to another 40-point game, the 78th of his career. He was neither efficient (3-of-14 from three, four turnovers) nor detrimental. He deferred the spotlight to Westbrook in crunch time, but not in a way that seemed strange.
This dynamic between Houston’s two stars almost feels like a pattern. Almost.
Again: We know better. It is much too soon to buy loose trends as matters of fact. This season has a lot of story yet to tell. The Rockets have loads of questions they still need to answer.
But the issue of Harden and Westbrook is not at the fore of Houston’s most pressing concerns. This is not to be confused with a secondary focus. They will be under the microscope every time they talk somewhat animatedly on camera, and most certainly after each Rockets loss.
In both victory and defeat, though, the Harden-Westbrook experiment has yet to resemble a referendum.
Neither has overhauled his identity. Harden is in isolation less (30.9 percent of his offensive possessions entering Monday) compared to last year (48.7 percent), but he’s not constantly displaced from the ball. His usage is more in line with 2017-18, which is probably closer to where the Rockets envisioned it hovering beside a true second star.
Westbrook is moving more away from the ball but owns ample control over the offense. Only slightly more of his made buckets are coming off assists (28 percent) compared to 2018-19 (25.4 percent), and Houston has not purged the long two from his shot diet.
Harden and Westbrook are not Houston’s primary concern right now—and that’s a win.Tim Warner/Getty Images
Meaningful holes in this pairing are equally hard to come by. Westbrook probably won’t shoot 36.4 percent from deep or keep his outside volume in check forever, but Harden isn’t going to hit 15.0 percent of his triples forever, either.
The Rockets are neither demonstratively winning or losing the minutes Harden and Westbrook play together. They are a net plus with Harden alone and in the red when Westbrook runs solo. These are predictable returns.
Though the shots he sets up aren’t always falling, Westbrook looks about as comfortable as reasonably possible this soon. Houston’s spacing is a boon for his finishing on drives and in transition, and the supporting cast is effectively reacting to the pull he has in those situations:
Alykhan Bijani @Rockets_Insider
Watch how quickly Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker fly to opposite corners when Westbrook is on the move in transition. Coach D’Antoni will go to 5-out lineup to maximize spacing for the bench unit. Also allows the defense to switch and invite teams to post-up if they accept.
Those searching for what most ails Houston must begin here: with everyone else.
PJ Tucker is his usual reliable self at both ends but stands almost entirely alone. Clint Capela would be as expected if not for his disappearing acts on the glass. Eric Gordon is slashing 30.2/21.4/66.7.
Danuel House Jr.’s offensive highs never seem to last, and he’s tough to watch when his shots aren’t falling, as was the case Monday. But he’s mission-critical to the Rockets defense, and they need to play him.
More pointedly, they don’t have many viable alternatives.
Gerald Green still isn’t expected to return this season after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. Ben McLemore isn’t eminently playable. Austin Rivers is shooting 2-of-10 from distance and has this tendency to shake-and-bake into nothingness. Gary Clark is not in the rotation. Thabo Sefolosha is scoreless through 34 minutes…and 35 years old.
Using Tucker at the 5 is something the Rockets still appear interested in doing. Can they survive on the glass during those stretches? That remains to be seen. Their first two games suggest the answer is yes. Monday offered a rebuttal. The defense figures to struggle in those stints without an infusion of depth on the wings.
None of this is revelatory. The Rockets were in the hunt for consistency outside their marquee names before the season ever began.
Gordon’s freezing-cold start is most shocking, and yet not entirely unprecedented. If this rut becomes the status quo, then peace may devolve into panic.
And even considering that worse-cast scenario feels forced. Gordon is shooting a not-great, not-damning 38.5 percent on his wide-open threes. Just like Harden, odds are he’ll be fine.
That Gordon is Houston’s biggest question mark thus far is encouraging.Bill Baptist/Getty Images
Even if he’s not, there’s untold value in Gordon’s struggles becoming the talking point. Ditto for Harden’s slump, because it’s so obviously temporary.
Really, there’s value in Houston’s entire start to the season.
Blowing a monster lead against the Milwaukee Bucks was terrible form, and barely beating the Thunder and Zion Williamson-less New Orleans Pelicans is nothing to celebrate. The Rockets have, by and large, looked unspectacular. And they’ve done so while navigating the infant stages of what’s supposed to be the league’s most combustible star duo.
With all Houston is up against, unspectacular will do—for now.
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