SAITAMA – Preseason games give fans a glimpse of the supreme talent on display in the NBA every day during the long season.
Before an electric atmosphere at Saitama Super Arena, where the NBA staged its first game in Japan in more than 16 years on Tuesday evening, the defending champion Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets didn’t disappoint in providing highlight after highlight, flashy dribbling and plenty of dunks, aerial acrobatics and 3-point laser beams and rainbows.
It was the first NBA preseason game for new Rockets backcout partners James Harden and Russell Westbrook, former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates. Westbrook didn’t play last Thursday in Honolulu against the Los Angeles Clippers. Westbrook underwent knee surgery in May.
The Raptors pulled away down the stretch, winning 134-129.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse said the teams put on a good show for the crowd. He called it “a pretty entertaining game for the fans, I think.”
Nurse commended the fans for their spirited support. “I thought the crowd had a lot of juice,” he said.
The Rockets took a 106-97 lead into the final period.
Chris Boucher’s foray through traffic for a layup slashed the lead to 109-105 with nearly 10 minutes left.
Chants of “Let’s Go, Raptors” were heard with about 9 minutes left, as fans rooted for a rally from the reigning NBA champions.
A Rondae Hollis-Jefferson layup gave Toronto its first tie of the second half (114-114), prompting Houston coach Mike D’Antoni to call a timeout with 6:49 left.
Malcolm Miller put the Raptors in front 119-119 on a left-corner 3 with about 5:20 remaining.
After an official timeout with 4:04 left, the Raptors held a 121-118 advantage.
Toronto maintained its poise down the stretch to secure the victory.
Balanced scoring played an instrumental role for the Raptors. Pascal Siakam had 24 points and 11 rebounds, Serge Ibaka scored 18 points, Fred VanVleet had 16, Norman Powell 16 and Chris Boucher 12.
For Houston, Harden had 34 points on 11-for-14 shooting in 27 exhilarating minutes, with Westbrook scoring 13 points and dishing out six assists in 20 minutes.
Westbrook enjoyed the atmosphere, he told reporters afterward.
“It was amazing. The fans got a chance to see what NBA basketball is all about,” he said.
Harden, meanwhile, noted that he’s not yet midseason form.
“I’m still working on my condition. In these preseason games, we’re trying to push it to our limits,” Harden commented.
He added: “Tonight was a great start for us. We’re glad to see Russ out there on the court (with us).”
With 9:53 to play in the third, D’Antoni requested a coach’s challenge after Siakam made a layup. Initially, a foul was called on Thabo Sefolosha for doing so during the shot, which would have also awarded a free throw to Siakam. After a video review, it was determined that the foul occurred before the shot, and the free throw was taken away.
The Raptors trailed 93-80 with 7:23 left in the quarter, then Serge Ibaka stepped to the foul line and sank the second of two shots to trim the margin to a dozen.
Moments later, Westbrook drove baseline, moving left to right with an explosive first step, and converted a reverse layup. Harden followed on Houston’s next possession with a 3-pointer to make it 98-83, with the Lone Star State squad threatening to reach 100 points quite quickly.
In a fast-paced first quarter, the teams traded baskets several times in the early going. The Rockets took a 13-9 lead on a Harden runner and extended their lead to 16-11 on an Eric Gordon 3-pointer.
The crowd cheered with unbridled passion after Siakam nailed a fadeaway bank shot near the 7:30 mark and drew a foul. Then he sank a free throw to pull the Raptors within 18-16.
Harden drove straight down the lane and unleased a perfect scoop shot to put his club in front 22-20 before a break in the action with 5:56 left in the opening period. The 2017-18 NBA MVP had 21 first-quarter points, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range.
Harden drained a 3-pointer to put Houston in front 44-40 in the closing seconds of the first period.
A master at drawing contact, Harden sliced through traffic and earned a trip to the free- throw line with 4:19 before halftime. He made the first of two shots as Houston increased its advantage to 69-59. Teammate Chris Clemons knocked down a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 72-69.
Harden, a natural showman, dribbled the ball as the clock counted down to less than 10 seconds before halftime. He pumped up the crowd with several between-the-legs dribbles before burying another 3-pointer with 9.3 seconds left. That made it 85-71, Houston.
The Raptors got a bucket from Ibaka before the break, cutting it to 85-73, and the score stood entering intermission.
Harden was the first-half scoring leader. He had 27 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field and was 6 of 11 at the foul line. Clint Capela and Westbrook had 12 and 11 points, respectively.
For the Raptors, Siakam, the 2018-19 NBA Most Improved Player Award winner, poured in 18 points in the opening half, with Ibaka and Powell netting 15 and 14, respectively.
In its first preseason game, Toronto looked a bit rusty on offense, as evidenced by 10 first- half turnovers. But longtime point guard Kyle Lowry, who’s recovering from offseason hand surgery, sat out the game.
In the paint
Before the game, Rakuten Inc. CEO Hiroshi Mikitani was the center of attention, greeting the crowd and asking Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, to stand up. Mikitani received warm applause for the fans. His company is an official sponsor of the Golden State Warriors, whose jersey bears the Rakuten logo.
Rakuten also announced on Tuesday that it has finalized a deal with the NBA to stream all NBA games this season.
“The new service will merge the ‘Rakuten NBA Special and other NBA-related content provided by Rakuten’s video-on-demand service Rakuten TV and the ‘NBA League Pass’ provided by the NBA to form a single hub for fans in Japan to enjoy all NBA games both live and on demand,” Rakuten stated in a news release.
Rakuten became an NBA global partner in 2017.
Rakuten’s new NBA coverage this year includes a daily talk show “NBA Johokyoku DAILY9” (NBA News Network DAILY9) with highlights and analysis of games plus another talk show, “Oretachi no NBA” (Our NBA) with local personalities and other programming to provide “a multi-layered entertainment experience to fans.” …
Ex-stars Chris Bosh and Shawn Marion were special NBA guests at the game, as was NBA global ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, all three of whom stood on the court during a timeout with 2:29 left in the first half. The fans roared with delight as the trio waved to them. Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton was also in the arena, and he appeared on the large TV monitors midway through the fourth.
After the game, D’Antoni was asked for his thoughts on the political brouhaha enveloping the NBA and China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong. D’Antoni declined to comment, saying, “I’m here to coach basketball and (we’re here to) play basketball.”