It was a rough Saturday for James Harden at the Toyota Center, but his new co-star Russell Westbrook more than picked up the slack in Houston's 126-123 win over the Pelicans. The Rockets are now 1–1 in the 2019-20, with a reunion on deck for Monday as Houston hosts Chris Paul and Oklahoma City.
Here are three takeaways from the Rockets' first victory of 2019-20.
Westbrook Continues to Shine
It hasn't taken long for Russell Westbrook to acclimate to Houston. In fact, the former Thunder star appears right at home after just two games in the Toyota Center. Westbrook finished with 24 points and 16 assists in the Rockets opening-night loss to the Bucks on Thursday, and he was even better on Saturday night. Westbrook shined as James Harden failed to find his jump shot, pouring in 28 points while adding 10 rebounds and 13 assists. He now has one career triple-double in Houston after 138 in Oklahoma City.
"It's a blessing," Westbrook said postgame after passing Magic Johnson for the second-most triple-doubles in NBA history. "It's something I'll never take for granted. I know nowadays getting triple-doubles seems normal, but I take pride, a lot of energy, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of things I do off the floor to be ready to compete every single night. ... It's a great accomplishment, especially growing up and never thinking I'd play in the NBA and now being in the history books, it's a blessing and something I don't take for granted. "
Westbrook shot an efficient 9-17 from the field in Saturday's victory. Seven of his nine made field goals came at the rim, and his midrange attempts were limited. D'Antoni said on Wednesday the Rockets "don't want to change what makes [Westbrook] great," though an adjusted shot profile will go a long way to making Westbrook's tenure in Houston a successful one. Westbrook appears to have gotten the memo through two games, and his performance thus far suggests Houston will remain among the top tier of Western Conference contenders. Daryl Morey's gamble has paid off through the first two games of 2019-20.
Harden Struggles From the Field
After an offseason of questions regarding Westbrook's jump shot, it's actually his partner-in-crime who has struggled to shoot a respectable percentage in the Rockets' first two games. Harden made just eight of 29 shots on Saturday night, finishing the evening with a putrid 2-18 mark from three. Perhaps Harden's adjustment next to Westbrook is more significant than we thought.
It's been an ugly first eight quarters for the 2017-18 MVP. Harden is 3-26 from three in two games, clanking nearly every step-back triple off the iron. Harden missed his first six threes on Saturday, then hit himself in the head after making his first triple of the night. Harden's frustration was palpable in Houston's win.
Rockets head coach D'Antoni appeared unconcerned by Harden's slow start after Saturday's win.
"I don’t care who [Harden] is playing against, what kind of scheme. Either he gets 50 or he doesn’t, and that’s depending on him," D'Antoni told the media. "I’m expecting next game he’ll do it, and if not, the game after."
Houston's offense still hummed on Saturday despite Harden's poor shooting night. A return to normalcy should vault the Rockets to a top-five offense this season.
Bounce Back for Capela
Clint Capela has a pretty plum gig on the offensive end. Houston's center is the pick-and-roll partner for a pair of MVPs, both of whom look to Capela early and often for lob attempts and dump-offs in the paint. Such a stream of easy opportunities could lead to Capela leading the NBA in dunks by season's end.
"Russ and James, they're both incredibly special at what they do" Capela said postgame. "The way they draw the defense and make plays, it's going to make us very special this year."
Capela's burgeoning chemistry with Westbrook is a chief reason for optimism in Houston. The young center showed off his soft hands on numerous occasions on Saturday en route to 15 points on 7-9 shooting, corralling numerous bounce passes after Westbrook drew multiple defenders in the paint. Capela and Chris Paul posted a 110.7 offensive rating in 1,195 minutes last season. That rate could improve this season given Westbrook's otherworldly athleticism. Paul is a brilliant tactician. Westbrook is a whole different beast. Capela should be the primary beneficiary of his new point guard.