Basketball / NBA

Rockets down Raptors in finale of Japan Games

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets wrapped up this year’s NBA Japan Games with the second entertaining 48-minute spectacle of the week on Thursday night at Saitama Super Arena.

There was plenty of star power on display with highlight-reel plays by Houston superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet, among others.

But it was one of the freshest faces who helped secure the final outcome.

Houston rookie guard Chris Clemons, a 175-cm Campbell University product, drained 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to give his team a 104-96 advantage early in the final stanza, and the Rockets held on for a 118-111 victory. Toronto defeated Houston 134-129 in the opener on Tuesday evening at the same venue.

For the Rockets, Westbrook and Harden both scored 22 points. Harden also handed out nine assists. Eric Gordon finished with 14 points, canning 4 of 8 3-pointers. Austin Rivers came off the bench and scored 10 points. Starting center Clint Capela also had 10 points.

Powell paced the Raptors with 22 points, Siakam poured in 16, Serge Ibaka had 12 and VanVleet added 10. Toronto also used 11 bench players, with Malcolm Miller, Patrick McCaw and Terence Davis leading the way with eight, seven and seven points, respectively.

Houston bench boss Mike D’Antoni said he’s pleased with Westbrook’s return to action after offseason arthroscopic knee surgery in the summer. He made his preseason debut on Tuesday.

“He’s just now starting to play,” D’Antoni told reporters. “Every game he will get better. He’ll get back to his level pretty soon.

“He’s still not where he wants to be but he’ll get there.”

Raptors coach Nick Nurse said the trip to Japan helped him to start to assess where his team is in terms of preparation for the season.

“We’re rounding into shape,” Nurse said after Thursday’s game, while citing Siakam, Powell and VanVleet looked impressive.

The Raptors took control in a stellar stretch of the third quarter, using a 12-3 run to snatch a 79-66 lead on a Siakam layup. The NBA’s 2018-18 Most Improved Player Award recipient used a burst of speed in the lane to create space between him and the defense.

Harden drew contact while attempting a 3-pointer with 6:24 left in the quarter. Then he sank all three shots to cut it to 79-72. Moments later, he impressed the crowd with a nifty sequence of crossover dribbles, then was awarded a trip the foul line while taking a jumper in the lane. Harden made the first of two free throws at the 5:04 mark, and the Raptors still led 82-73 at that point.

Westbrook canned a left-side 3-pointer to knot the score at 88-88 with about 30 seconds to go in the quarter. Then, after Matt Thomas made a pair of free throws for the Raptors, Westbrook closed out the quarter by penetrating past Toronto’s defense for a layup. And again, the score was tied: Toronto 90, Houston 90.

Entering the fourth quarter, Powell and Harden shared the lead for most points (22 apiece), with VanVleet already in the book with a double-double (10 points, 10 assists).

Nurse mentioned that several of the team’s lesser-known players had valuable opportunities on this trip to make their case for earning roster spots.

“There’s plenty of guys there,” Nurse said. “Not easy to weed it out this time of year, but it’s part of the reason we play so many guys and limit the minutes.”

He continued: “(I’m) pleased with the trip here. We’ve had an amazing time, and the basketball was just what we needed as well.”

Early on, the Rockets took an 11-6 lead on a Capela layup, with Harden delivering a perfect lob to set up his teammate. They made it 14-6 on Gordon 3-pointer from the left corner after solid ball movement around the perimeter.

The Rockets extended their lead to 22-8 on a Rivers bucket. But Toronto pulled within 30-23 on a Miller 3 from the right corner late in the first, and Westbrook made a steal and attempted a fallaway 3 just before the opening period ended.

In the second quarter, the Raptors used a 10-0 spurt to tie it 43-43 on a VanVleet 3-pointer near the 6-minute mark.

Toronto continued its effective play at both ends of the court to close out the half, taking a 63-55 lead into intermission.

The leading first-half scorers were Toronto’s Powell with 14 points and Houston’s Harden with the same point total.

Veteran center Marc Gasol made his preseason debut for the Raptors on Thursday. Gasol came off the bench and provided four points, six rebounds and two steals in the first half in 11-plus minutes. He got the most minutes of any Raptors backup in the opening half. He finished the game with six points, six boards and three steals in 18-plus minutes.

“Obviously, Gasol looks like he hasn’t missed a beat,” Nurse commented.

In the paint

Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani sat near courtside with tennis stars Kei Nishikori and Naomi Osaka. Konishiki, a former ozeki, and several other sumo wrestlers were also spotted in the crowd. … Houston sank 17 of 64 3s; Toronto made 11 of 37. … Westbrook said the focus of the team’s Japan trip was to take steps to get better.

“Right now I’m just trying to focus on what we can do to get better each and every night,” Westbrook said.