After an entertaining exhibition game played at a frenetic pace on Tuesday night at Saitama Super Arena, the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets went back to work on Wednesday afternoon determined to make adjustments.
Both teams took some positives out of the first of two NBA Japan Games, which provided a test in terms of preparation for the 2019-20 season.
The Raptors rallied for a 134-129 victory, overcoming a 104-87 deficit with 3:40 to go in the third quarter before a packed house of 20,413 spectators. Thirty-six seconds later, James Harden’s work shift was over. It was an impressive showing: 34 points and seven assists in 27-plus minutes. He was replaced by Russell Westbrook, who made his preseason debut on Tuesday after skipping the Rockets’ games last week, against the Shanghai Sharks on Sept. 30 in Houston and versus the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday in Honolulu.
With Harden out, the Raptors outscored the Rockets 47-25 for the rest of the game.
The defending champions cut it to single digits (106-97) with 55.8 seconds left in the third period on a Fred VanVleet pull-up 3-pointer.
“Yeah, I thought they played well,” D’Antoni said of Toronto on Wednesday afternoon at a training facility in Tokyo. “They did a good job. When the comeback happened we would’ve have that team on the floor (in the regular season), so they did what they’re supposed to do, and we didn’t play real well. But I was happy up to that point.”
“For 3½ quarters, we played well yesterday,” said Harden, who added that watching film before practice on Wednesday was helpful to make some offensive adjustments and tighten up on defense for Thursday’s rematch.
None of Houston’s starters — Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela, Westbrook and Harden — stepped onto the court in the fourth quarter, giving D’Antoni an extended opportunity to observe other players.
Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in mid-September. Which meant his comeback after the medical procedure officially began in Japan.
“He hasn’t played all summer,” D’Antoni said of Westbrook. “That was the first exhibition game, and I thought he was very good, very athletic. The knee was good. There was a lot of positive things and he’ll get better from here.”
As for the chance to reunite with Westbrook, Harden’s former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate from 2009 to 2012, the two-time reigning league scoring champion admitted “I was excited.”
“I knew Russ was excited to be out there for his first time since last season,” added Harden, a seven-time All-Star. “But that excitement is there, man. Everybody in our organization has that excitement.”
Toronto bench boss Nick Nurse guided the team to a title in his first season in charge. As he prepares for the 2019-20 campaign, he analyzed the Raptors’ first preseason game with a sharp eye while observing the overall performance of their younger players.
“Being a critical coach in this time of year, there were a few too many mistakes at the defensive end,” he said. “They’ve got to learn very quickly. I understand it’s new for them. … (But) we’ve got to get those things fixed up so we now we can rely on them, especially on the defensive end of the floor.”
The Raptors chalked up 30 assists but turned the ball over 25 times, a few too many, according to Nurse. “But it’s a fast-paced, high-possession game and it’s early (in the preseason),” he acknowledged.
Thursday’s game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at the same venue, and Nurse confirmed that veteran center Marc Gasol, who sat out Tuesday’s game, will play for the Raptors. Gasol’s offseason was shortened by his participation on Spain’s FIBA World Cup-winning squad.
“We are just trying to slow ease him into the season and we’ve got a long way to go but he’ll play tomorrow,” Nurse said of Gasol. After that, the coach said the plan is to likely play Gasol in one of the team’s two remaining preseason games after its departure for Toronto.
Nurse also announced that starting point guard Kyle Lowry, who had surgery on his left thumb on July 18, is set to make his preseason debut on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls in Toronto. Lowry traveled with the team to Japan. He’ll visit his doctor in New York to get clearance to play.
“Everything seems to be super positive as far as being 100 percent healed,” Nurse said.
A coach’s leisure time
Despite his hectic schedule preparing his team for the two games against the Rockets this week, Nurse made time to indulge in a fun activity away from the gym after a practice.
On Wednesday, he attended the Central League Climax Series Final Stage opener, featuring the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers at Tokyo Dome.
“I love baseball and I’m excited to see the game there in Tokyo tonight,” he said before practice.
The path to the pros
Harden discussed how he approached the game of basketball as a youngster, leading him on a path to becoming a star.
“What was my mindset? To do whatever it takes to get to the NBA,” Harden stated. “Which means you have to sacrifice … you have to take it as if it’s your job. And that’s just like any career. … You have to work at it every single day. It’s just the effort you put into whatever you want your craft to be, the better results you’ll get out of it.”
Lowry echoed a similar message when asked about what advice he’d give to young Japanese basketball players.
“I believe in working hard,” Lowry said.
In the fourth quarter, some of Toronto’s lesser-known players received major minutes. Guard Cameron Payne, a fourth-year pro, and rookie forward Oshae Brissett each played the entire 12 minutes, and swingman Malcolm Miller had a team-best nine points (his entire total for the game) in the final period.
Another catalyst for the victorious Raptors was undrafted rookie guard Terence Davis. The University of Mississippi product chipped in with eight points and five assists in 11 productive minutes.
Davis impressed Nurse with a leaping dunk following a timeout, with his overall athleticism shining through in the game.
“He’s got a lot of explosiveness. He can do a lot of things we wanthim to do,” Nurse noted.