Basketball / NBA

Rockets train in Tokyo ahead of Saitama series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Superstar duo James Harden and Russell Westbrook and other Houston Rockets players have arrived in Japan and held their first practice in Tokyo on Sunday ahead of their two-game preseason series against the Toronto Raptors.

The two teams will compete on Tuesday and Thursday night at Saitama Super Arena. Both contests will tip off at 7 p.m. Those will be the first NBA games held in Japan since the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) and Los Angeles Clippers squared off in two regular-season games at the same venue in 2003.

“I’m always in favor of trips like this,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said when asked what he would expect out of the Japanese series for his team. “Because I think it’s good for the team to bond. Japan’s a beautiful place to be. So it’s going to be enriching to the players off the court, on the court, playing in front of a different crowd. So there’s a lot of benefits. And then practices are practices. We practice here, practice in Houston. It’s all the same. So we’ll get good basketball work, we’ll get good bonding. It’s a win-win.”

One of the focal points in the series will be Westbook, who is making his debut with the Rockets this upcoming season. The 30-year-old, who was traded from the Thunder this offseason, has not played in either of Houston’s two preseason games but is expected to appear on the court in Saitama.

Westbrook said he is “very excited” to have reunited with Harden, who was previously his teammate at Oklahoma City.

“I think it’s something that we can look forward to, something that we can build on to our season. So I’m excited about it,” said the 2016-17 NBA MVP, who has visited Japan several times for promotional tours.

Westbrook, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his non-shooting hand after last season, indicated that he would not rush to get back to top form this week in Japan.

“Just relaxation. Just chill, bond with my teammates,” Westbrook said of what he expected out of the series for himself. “I’ll enjoy some time here in Tokyo, once again, and then have some fun.”

Harden’s motivation is a little different from Westbrook’s. The reigning MVP and scoring champion said that his team would try to “put on a show” in this rare opportunity for Japanese fans to see NBA action in person.

“That’s one of the best feelings,” Harden said, when asked what it meant for the players to compete in front of international crowds overseas. “There’s obviously a lot of basketball games (back in North America), but for countries that (rarely) have opportunities to see NBA games live in person is like, you have to put on a show, you have to let these fans know how great NBA basketball is. Obviously, you guys watch it on TV, but in person, it’s a different atmosphere.

“We just left Hawaii (for a preseason game against the Clippers), and we tried to put on a great show. We competed and tried to win a game. And Tuesday and Thursday are going to be the same thing. We try to get better, so it’s not just going to be running around. It’s going to be actual games. We are going to try to execute our plays offensively. And defensively, we are going to try to be on the same page, communicate, and get as many stuffs as we can. The Japanese (fans) deserve to see NBA basketball, of course. And that’s what they are going to get.”

Houston and the defending NBA champion Raptors will also hold practice sessions in Tokyo on Monday.

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