Bucks beat Rockets 117-111 in Westbrook's Houston debut
The Milwaukee Bucks rolled to a 117-111 victory over the Houston Rockets on Thursday night in a star-studded opener.Antetokounmpo, the MVP last season, fouled out with about five minutes remaining.
HOUSTON – So many moving parts have hovered over this Houston Rockets franchise, and it does not just include Darryl Morey’s tweets about the Hong Kong protests, Russell Westbrook’s arrival and James Harden’s initial shooting struggles.
It also includes coach Mike D’Antoni, who will patrol the sidelines without any assurances on where he will coach after this season.
"It’s not going to change the way I coach or how I feel trying to compete," D’Antoni told USA TODAY Sports. "So then we’ll see next summer with what happens."
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D’Antoni had talks last offseason with Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta about a possible extension after guiding Houston to a combined 173-73 record and three playoff appearances in the past three seasons. D’Antoni had no interest in accepting the Rockets’ offer to extend his current contract for just another year.
Perhaps the Rockets become more amenable toward offering D’Antoni more security next summer after seeing whether they can finally advance out of the Western Conference finals, let alone win an NBA title. Then again, D’Antoni might field interest from other teams after seeing how he helped the Rockets become the lone Western Conference team in the last two years to seriously threaten the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.
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Either way, D’Antoni does not consider it fair to have those developments hover over his players. So when both sides could not agree to terms this summer, D’Antoni entered this season willing to have lame-duck status. Usually, coaches balk at that idea, considering it could weaken their authority within the front office and locker room. D’Antoni insisted he does not think that way, however, for a simple reason.
"I got a great group of guys that I don’t think care. They won’t be affected by it," D’Antoni said. "I won’t be affected by it. So it’s a non-issue."
Oct 22, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers guard Patrick Beverley (21) celebrates in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Lakers 112-102. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Instead, D’Antoni has other issues on his mind with the Rockets (1-1) hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder (1-2) on Monday in what will mark a reunion both for Westbrook and Chris Paul.
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How will the Harden-Westbrook pairing work? What did D’Antoni take away from the Harden-Paul backcourt before the Rockets traded Paul last summer to Oklahoma City? Can the Rockets thrive on defense just as they have on offense?
Given all of those developments, how will the Rockets distinguish themselves in a crowded Western Conference that includes two Los Angeles teams with superstar duos (Clippers, Lakers) and a handful of teams banking on continuity (Utah, Denver, San Antonio, Portland)? Can any of those teams, including the Rockets, take advantage of the Golden State Warriors losing Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and possibly Klay Thompson?
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"We have as much talent as anybody in the league. So can we keep building championship habits and do the right thing every time?" D’Antoni said. "We don’t fear anybody. But we respect everybody. There are seven teams, probably eight, in the West that are in the mix, too. We somehow have to get it all together."
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The biggest factor points to how Harden and Westbrook will work together.
D’Antoni will be the first to downplay the partnership Harden and Westbrook had in Oklahoma City (2009-12). Westbrook mostly started, while Harden mostly came off the bench well before either player fully blossomed. Since their partnership ended seven years ago, Harden and Westbrook each have collected a regular-season MVP award and two scoring titles. Westbrook just surpassed Magic Johnson for second place on the NBA’s all-time triple-doubles list (139). Still, D’Antoni believes Harden and Westbrook can best determine their dynamic because of their on-court credentials and friendship.
"They can figure that out. They know who’s hot and who has the better matchup," D’Antoni said. "I rely on them to be able to figure that out. That’s something you learn all year. To say that I know now and it won’t be any different in May or April, that won’t be even close. We’ll go through ups and downs. But we’ll figure it out as we go."
D’Antoni sounds willing to hand the keys to Harden and Westbrook. Amid coaching stops with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, D’Antoni has considered it important to make his players feel empowered. Hence, D’Antoni has made little of Harden starting the season shooting 23.8% in the first two games. As D'Antoni joked to reporters, "he's awful. I don’t think he’s had enough games for us to trust him."
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Still, D’Antoni plans to help steer the wheel.
He envisioned nearly equal minutes among Harden (36 per night), Westbrook (32) and their teammates (34). While Harden has averaged those minutes in the past three seasons, Westbrook could have his lightest workload since his rookie season 11 years ago. D’Antoni plans to stagger playing time for both players, while ensuring they play together during crunch time. Eric Gordon, a former Sixth Man of the Year, will likely shave minutes for both Harden and Westbrook as well.
After the Rockets finished 27th last season in pace (the number of possessions per game), D’Antoni wants that number to increase because of Westbrook’s speed and athleticism. How about Westbrook’s shooting though? He averaged only 29% from 3-point range last season and attempted 4.2 mid-range shots per game, two traits that do not bode well in D’Antoni’s offense. Yet, D’Antoni sounded confident the Rockets can lead the NBA in 3-point attempts for a fourth consecutive season even when accounting for Westbrook’s presence.
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"We’re going to let him be Westbrook. That’s our guideline," D’Antoni said. "It’s not up to us to change his game. He’s played well. We just want him at that level. We take four or five mid-range shots a game. And he takes four or five. So he’ll be the only that will take them."
Westbrook already called dibs on those shots during a recent film session. In a tone that sounded equally joking and serious, D’Antoni said "we’ll stick to that." If that becomes the only source of contention that Westbrook feels? Well, perhaps that pales to what Harden and Paul experienced.
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Nonetheless, D’Antoni downplayed reports that said Harden and Paul expressed to the front office they no longer wanted to play with each other after not being on speaking terms. The Rockets have maintained those are not the reasons they traded Paul, a pair of first-round picks (2024, 2026) and pick swaps (2021, 2025) to Oklahoma City for Westbrook. Considering the Rockets went 89-27 during Paul’s time here, D’Antoni considered the partnership to be "fantastic."
"There’s tension every day. There’s tension between all of us," D’Antoni said. "You can either write it and say there was, and I can’t say it was wrong. But you can say it didn’t really affect us. It didn’t affect us. We didn’t play quite enough."
Stars (and near-stars) who could swing the title: Ben Simmons, Sixers Can he develop a jump shot? Does he need to develop a jump shot, at least right now? Simmons' jumper is the most glaring hole in his game, but the Sixers look to be so good defensively that they'll be able to continue masking that offensive shortcoming. Fine-tuning his shot could really open up the Sixers’ offense and remove Philadelphia's ceiling altogether.
Stars (and near-stars) who could swing the title: Draymond Green, Warriors Golden State's personnel losses this offseason are well known. Green’s play will be a big factor in determining if the Warriors can offset those losses. He says he's back on his playoff diet for the whole season. If he really is and plays like the two-way terror he was for much of last postseason, it could be the difference between the Warriors fighting for a playoff spot and fighting for a top four seed.
Stars (and near-stars) who could swing the title: Chris Paul, Thunder A veteran with a big contract who doesn't seem long for his current team. Oklahoma City is already sitting on a mountain of draft picks and could add even more with a Paul trade. He's healthy heading into the season. If Paul can show he still has it, the Thunder would presumably look to trade him for picks and/or young talent for their rebuild. Some contenders will be interested, particularly the Heat, but do they have the assets (and the stomach) to take on his contract?
Stars (and near-stars) who could swing the title: Kevin Love, Cavaliers A veteran with a big contract who doesn't seem long for his current team. Love is healthy heading into the season. If he can show he still has it, Cleveland would presumably look for a trade to accumulate picks and/or young talent to rebuild around young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Some contenders will be interested, but who has the assets (and the stomach) to take on his contract?
Stars (and near-stars) who could swing the title: Jamal Murray, Nuggets A rising star who, with another leap, could make the Nuggets a legitimate championship contender. Murray, 22, has become a great running mate for All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic. Developing into a more consistent, reliable play-maker and passer will go a long way to raising the Nuggets' championship ceiling. Denver is hoping Murray is motivated after getting a $170 million max extension this summer.
Stars (and near-stars) who could swing the title: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz A rising star who, with another leap, could make the Nuggets a legitimate championship contender. Utah was a big offseason winner after revamping an already-solid roster around Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. With newly acquired Mike Conley taking on primary ball-handling duties, Mitchell, 23, should be free to flourish off the ball with far less pressure. If he can take advantage and improve his efficiency as scorer and passer, Mitchell will start to truly live up to the Dwyane Wade comparisons.
Making a leap: De'Aaron Fox, Kings A young up-and-comer who could make his team a playoff contender. Fox, 21, and Sacramento were in playoff contention last season before falling off late. They'll have an even tougher go of it this season in the loaded Western Conference. The Kings have a new coach in Luke Walton, but his up-tempo offense is tailor-made for Fox's strengths in the open floor and as a slasher. Another season of growth with the talented young roster around him, and Fox could end the league's longest playoff drought.
Making a leap: Lauri Markkanen, Bulls A young up-and-comer who could make his team a playoff contender. It seems as if Chicago would still be a year (or more) away from playoff contention, but the bottom of the Eastern Conference is pretty weak and no one really stands out. Markkanen, 22, has the game to be a go-to scorer, but improving as a play-maker and defender will be key.
Making a leap: Trae Young, Hawks A young up-and-comer who could make his team a playoff contender. It seems as if Atlanta would still be a year (or more) away from playoff contention, but the bottom of the Eastern Conference is pretty weak and no one really stands out. Young, 21, already passes and creates for others as well as almost anyone in the league. He'll need to boost his shooting efficiency to really start taking his game to the next level.
Making a leap: Pascal Siakam, Raptors He proved that he's good. Now it's up to last season's Most Improved Player to show just how good. With the departure of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry aging, Siakam, 25, will get every chance to become the new face of the Raptors. His potential as a franchise centerpiece gives Toronto a new path forward, especially if general manager Masai Ujiri wants to start rebuilding by trading some of the team's veterans with favorable contracts.
Making a leap: Brandon Ingram, Pelicans After coming over in the Anthony Davis trade, the Pelicans are hoping Ingram, 22, is in line for the breakout he was supposed to have last season in Los Angeles. He has the skill set to thrive in the frontcourt next to Zion Williamson, especially if he can improve his erratic 3-point shooting. The Pelicans have one of the most promising young rosters in the league, and they want Ingram to be a big part of it. He needs prove he can.
Making a leap: Kyle Kuzma, Lakers He played well alongside LeBron James last season, but with Anthony Davis joining the fold, there are questions about how he fits next to those two stars. Can the Lakers play all three in the frontcourt together? Kuzma believes he can be the third star behind James and Davis. However, his impact is likely muted early by a foot injury that could keep him out to start the season.
Making a leap: Mitchell Robinson, Knicks Does New York have a future Defensive Player of the Year? A building block for the future? A prime candidate to flame out? It seems like Robinson's potential outcomes run the gamut. He showed a ton of promise as an elite-level defender during his rookie season. He also struggled to stay on the floor. To fully realize that promise on defense, Robinson, 21, will need to be much more disciplined.
Welcome back: Victor Oladipo, Pacers It’s still uncertain when Oladipo will be back from a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee. But if the Pacers can stay in the playoff mix while he's out, Oladipo's return could push Indiana into the top half of the Eastern Conference.
Welcome back: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers It's still uncertain when Nurkic will be back — and Portland is reportedly being "deliberately vague" about his rehab from a gruesome broken left leg. But if the Blazers can stay in the playoff mix while he's out, Nurkic's return could push Portland into the top half of the Western Conference.
Welcome back: Kristaps Porzingis, Mavericks His torn ACL is healed and he’s expected to be ready for the opener of his first season in Dallas. Porzingis was a budding star in New York before the injury, but 18 months is a long time to be away. How long will it take to get back to top form, and what does his new top form even look like? On paper, Porzingis' skill set as a versatile big man who can stretch the floor out to the 3-point line should pair perfectly next to Luka Doncic and give the Mavericks one of the most promising young duos in the league.
Next young star to want out? Bradley Beal, Wizards In the era of player empowerment, could Beal be the next young star to force a trade? He would seem to be staying put after agreeing to a two-year max extension just prior to the season. Building around the 26-year-old All-Star makes sense. But the Wizards project as one of the worst teams in the league this season. Just how much losing will Beal be able to stand? And if contenders come calling with enticing offers, how long would Washington be able to turn them down?
Next young star to want out? Karl-Anthony Towns, T'wolves In the era of player empowerment, could Towns, 23, be the next young star to force a trade? He doesn’t have a ton of leverage to force his way out of Minnesota — he’s just starting the first season of the five-year extension he signed last September. But if the T'wolves fall out of playoff contention early (certainly possibly in the stacked West) while Towns averages 25 and 13 and shoots 50-40-80 again, we could begin to hear rumblings of unhappiness.
Wild cards and enigmas: Kyrie Irving, Nets He could have landed in the earlier star category, but Irving likely won't swing the title one way or the other this year. Brooklyn seems solidly entrenched as a second-tier playoff team in the East behind Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Irving's placement here is mainly for the general weirdness he brings and the potential question of how that goes over in the locker room of another team full of promising young players.
Wild cards and enigmas: Jimmy Butler, Heat He also won't swing the title, but like Irving, Butler belongs on a list of interesting players. After tumultuous stops in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia ended with rumors (and outright evidence) of discord, Butler begins his newest chapter in a destination of his choosing. Miami hopes that makes for a content Butler. On the court, the Heat are a confusing team that could finish third in the East or miss the playoffs entirely.
Wild cards and enigmas: Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets The 2018 first-round draft pick appears to be back to full strength after missing last season. If preseason returns are any indication, Porter is primed to quickly break out as the draft steal he was widely considered. He's turned heads on both ends of the floor and could be huge for Denver as a scorer off the bench. But can he stay healthy and how rusty will he be after so long away from competitive basketball?
Wild cards and enigmas: Markelle Fultz, Magic After appearing in just 33 games over two years, the top pick in the 2017 draft looks ready to reboot his career in Orlando. Fultz looked solid during the preseason, but just what are the Magic getting from him? He has the size, versatility and play-making potential to raise Orlando’s ceiling in the East.
Wild cards and enigmas: Enes Kanter, Celtics Enes Kanter, Celtics: His infamous defense will always be an issue, especially since he’s a prime candidate to fill the minutes left by the departed Al Horford, who was a linchpin of good Boston defenses. But Kanter crashes the boards like a madman and plays with energy and excitement. The league will just be more fun with him playing regularly.
Wild cards and enigmas: Eric Bledsoe, Bucks He’s been a disaster the last two postseasons. Milwaukee enters the year with the reigning MVP and genuine championship aspirations. If the Bucks feel like they can’t trust Bledsoe, they could look to move him, despite the contract extension he signed last year. If they hold on to him, will he limit their ceiling?
Wild cards and enigmas: Andre Iguodala, Grizzlies Memphis never had any intention of Iguodala suiting up. His acquisition was solely for the first-round pick that came with. The Grizzlies are looking to trade him now, with a possible buyout as a last resort. Any contender would love to have him, especially both of the Los Angeles teams, though they each have limited resources to make a trade. Count on Iguodala landing with a top team and likely making an impact at some point in the playoffs.
Instead, D’Antoni argued that Paul’s right hamstring injury in the 2018 Western Conference finals, as well as numerous injuries last season, played a larger role. D’Antoni stressed that does not mean the Rockets would have beaten the Warriors in either of the past two playoffs. Yet, D’Antoni believes those elements played larger factors than when the Rockets missed 27 consecutive 3s in a decisive Game 7 against the Warriors in 2018.
Porzingis forgets which locker room to go to at Madison Square Garden
After the buzzer went off to end the second quarter, instincts kicked in for Kristaps Porzingis.Knicks fans greeted him with some ugly language and a chorus of boos. The All-Star forward managed to put it behind him and focus on the game.
"We think we’re playing the right way. That’s how we’re going to do it," D’Antoni said. "We just have to do a better job at it. Most of it comes down to defense anyway. It doesn’t come down to offense. We seem to score a lot, no matter how we play. But defensively, we have to get better."
After refusing to retain Trevor Ariza and Luc MBah a Moute in the 2018 offseason partly for financial reasons, the Rockets slightly dropped from sixth in points allowed (103.9) in 2017-18 to tenth (109.1) last season. This year, the Rockets have a dependable rim protector in Tyson Chandler, as well as wing defenders P.J. Tucker and Thabo Sefolosha. D’Antoni has also said that Rockets center Clint Capela "needs to get better." And D’Antoni expects Westbrook’s presence on the perimeter and the boards will help as well.
That gave D’Antoni perspective on how to handle his latest coaching gig.
He had fared through much worse amid the Knicks’ front office dysfunction, roster turnover and philosophical clashes with Carmelo Anthony before resigning. He experienced varying degrees of frustration with the Lakers over overlapping injuries to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, frequent roster turnover and mixed support for his system that most NBA teams currently embrace before resigning there as well. And this season? D’Antoni believes he has a strong chance to win his first NBA championship despite his uncertain future.
"Every situation is different. If I had guys looking for outs or not listening to me or if we had problems, it could be a problem," D’Antoni said. "But if you have a great group, which I have luckily, and they want to only win? We have a great relationship and we’re doing this all together."
Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Westbrook and Rajon Rondo at a GQ & Nordstrom show in New York in 2012.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rockets' D'Antoni exudes calm despite lame-duck status: 'It's not going to change the way I coach'
Porzingis forgets which locker room to go to at Madison Square Garden .
After the buzzer went off to end the second quarter, instincts kicked in for Kristaps Porzingis.Knicks fans greeted him with some ugly language and a chorus of boos. The All-Star forward managed to put it behind him and focus on the game.