If the Houston Rockets wanted to send a message in their first game since James Harden was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets, mission accomplished. Despite being without John Wall, Eric Gordon and the newly acquired Victor Oladipo, the Rockets beat the San Antonio Spurs, 109-105, on national TV Thursday night to begin the post-Harden era.
The Rockets were once again led by Christian Wood, who has been phenomenal so far after signing with the team this past offseason. He scored 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting, including 5-of-7 3-pointers, while pulling down 15 rebounds and blocking three shots. Wood’s performance earned him the postgame TNT interview, which led to an amusing moment.
Hall of Famer and “Inside the NBA” host Shaquille O’Neal began his question by telling Wood that he hadn’t been familiar with his game before Thursday, to which Wood replied, “Oh man, you’re a casual,” suggesting that Shaq doesn’t follow the game as closely as he should.
Wood is right to call Shaq out on this one. After bouncing back and forth between the G League and NBA to begin his career, the 6-10 Wood emerged last season as a member of the Detroit Pistons and became one of the most highly-sought after free agents on the market before signing with the Rockets on a three-year, $41 million contract. He entered Thursday’s game averaging 22.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in eight games this season, so this certainly isn’t a “Who He Play For?” situation.
The Wood-Shaq beef aside, this has to be a galvanizing feeling for the Rockets, whom Harden said were “just not good enough” the night before he was traded. You usually see a team that has recently fired a coach or traded a superstar come out with fire in the next game, but that energy usually dissipates by the third quarter or so. Houston kept it up all night, getting next-man-up performances from Sterling Brown (23 points, seven rebounds) and Jae’Sean Tate (13 points, 10 assists, five rebounds), while seeing solid contributions from rookies Mason Jones and Kenyon Martin Jr. It’s a great sign that the Rockets were able to win despite a relatively pedestrian performance from DeMarcus Cousins, who scored nine points on 2-for-8 shooting, with all of his attempts coming from behind the 3-point line.
Houston clearly made a move for the future in the Harden deal, acquiring four unprotected future first-round picks and four unprotected pick swaps, but what they showed on Thursday suggests they might be able to remain relatively competitive with the Harden drama now in the rear-view mirror. A core of Wall, Oladipo, Wood and Gordon is a solid base, along with Cousins and versatile role players who play hard every single night under coach Stephen Silas.
A new chapter has begun in Houston, and the undermanned Rockets set an impressive tone with a big win on Thursday.