For the first time since March 10, a day before the league had to suspend play due to COVID-19, the Houston Rockets held a home game inside the comfort of the Toyota Center. For 48 minutes, the Rockets had a sense of normalcy in a year that brought several different changes to the organization. The most ordinary look of all was watching James Harden drain a three-pointer with his signature step-back with the word “Rockets” spread across his chest.
Harden made his preseason debut on Tuesday as news surrounding his trade demand continued to dominate the rumor mill. In fact, ESPN declared this morning that the Harden-Rockets relationship is essentially over, the situation devolving into a monster of the team’s own creation
But Harden himself had his first official practice on Monday and has since been a mute after flaunting his late arrival to training camp on social media. With no words coming out of the three-time scoring champion’s mouth, no one knows what Harden is thinking after helping the Rockets take a 112-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
Instead, the basketball world had to settle for reading his body language to get a sense of how Harden was going to show up this season. But Harden’s actions gave reasons to feel optimistic despite all the negative reports.
Stephen Silas spoke on how “locked-in” Harden appeared to be during their initial conversation, and he seemed notably engaged with his teammates while competing against the Spurs.
He was seen several different times communicating with his teammates and even held several different huddles to enlighten Houston’s younger players. Harden could also be seen communicating with John Wall on several different occasions, as the two try to get accustomed to each other before the start of the regular season next Wednesday.
“It was cool. At first, it was a little different for me because I’m so used to having the ball so much. I’m not worried about trying to score 30 or 40. My job is to be the point guard and be the leader on the floor.” — Wall
Playing off the ball will take some time for Wall to get used to, but the five-time All-Star remained involved in the offense when Harden held the ball. Despite reports that say Harden remains uninterested in Wall’s arrival, the two meshed well in their first outing together on the court.
“Spot up and knock down shots. That’s something I’ve worked on this whole summer. When I am running the floor and he [Harden] has the ball in his hands, I can be a decoy because I am so fast. It leaves a lot of guys to respect me and run with me, which will open up the floor. The more we have practice with each other, and figure out how we want to play, I think things will be easy.” — Wall
Has Harden truly locked-in and warmed up to Silas to remain a Rocket for the time being? Or was his actions an audition to demonstrate to 29 other teams that he also possesses the qualities of a leader — in addition to his heroic scoring package? After all, Harden and Gregg Popovich had a healthy conversation prior to tip-off. Could his next home be straight down I-10 in San Antonio?
The distraction created since Harden demanded a trade has overshadowed an impressive training camp for the Rockets. But Tuesday night, Harden’s trade saga took a backseat to an unsung hero by the name Jae’Sean Tate.
Coach Silas has raved about Tate throughout training camp, and the former European All-Star could be Rafael Stone’s first gem as general manager. Tate played with high enthusiasm on both sides of the ball. The highlight of the night came when Tate scored two of his 11 points with a two-handed dunk assisted by Chris Clemons.
“He guards every position, he is capable offensively, he’s physical, he’s smart. As a rookie coming in, after playing professionally, he has kind of a veteran savvy about him. He doesn’t have that glazed, rookie look on his face. He’s a talented basketball player.” — Silas
The respect for Tate has reached beyond the front office, as the 25-year old Ohio native has earned admiration from his veteran teammates.
“I like him. I watched him a lot in college when he was at Ohio State. He plays with a motor. He is strong and athletic. He just wants to go out there and compete. He does all the little things and has asked a lot of questions throughout camp. I love everything about him. His ceiling is very high to keep getting better.” — Wall
With one preseason game left, the Rockets and Harden are focusing on making the best out of this awkward situation as they prepare for their season opener against the Thunder.
The organization will remain committed to the 12 guys who are suiting up for 48 minutes with the words “Rockets” spread across their chest inside the lines of the Toyota Center. Only time will reveal if Harden will remain one of those 12 guys.
“At the end of the day, that is a friend. I’ve been cool with James way before we even became teammates. He’s going to do what’s best for him. The organization is going to do what’s best for them. The most important thing is when we step onto that floor, we are focus on basketball. All I worry about is what we can do to make this Rockets team the best it can be while everyone is here.” — Wall