The Houston Rockets host the Milwaukee Bucks for a TNT showdown to open their respective seasons on Thursday night. Both teams are thinking championship heading into the 2019-20 campaign after disappointing playoff exits last season.
There are plenty of storylines to watch in this high-profile matchup, which features the last three MVP winners in Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019), James Harden (2018) and Russell Westbrook (2017). Oh, yeah, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are on the same team again for the first time since the 2012 NBA Finals.
Here are three things to watch for the Rockets in their season opener.
The MVP showdown
James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo engaged in an epic MVP battle last season. While Harden and the Rockets stumbled out of the gates early, he then put them on his back to finish with 53 wins. The 2018 MVP scored at least 30 points in 32 straight games and led the NBA in scoring with 36.1 points per game.
Naturally, Harden thought his exploits were MVP-worthy, but his bid at repeating was denied thanks to The Greek Freak’s monster season. Harden and the Rockets weren’t quiet this summer about their belief that he should have won the award again, so expect him to come out with extra motivation on Thursday night.
Harden was already in midseason form in the preseason, pouring in 31.2 points per game. The Bucks will likely be throwing a lot of bodies at Harden, including Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and perhaps even Giannis himself.
One final question: Will we see Harden try the one-legged step-back?
The other MVP, Russell Westbrook, will make his Rockets debut alongside Harden. While the two flourished together in Oklahoma City, there have been plenty of questions about how they’ll fare together now given how ball dominant they’ve both become.
Westbrook struggled in the preseason, averaging 16.3 points, 4.5 assists and 5.3 turnovers while shooting 41.5% from the field and 26.9% on 3-pointers. That 3-point percentage will be a number to watch. When Harden is doing his thing with the ball, Westbrook is going to have to be ready to knock down catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. The point guard did take 6.5 triples per game in the preseason, but he obviously struggled and has never been a quality 3-point shooter (30.8% for career).
The 2017 MVP is also currently dealing with dislocated fingers. While he and the Rockets are downplaying the injury, it will be something to monitor, especially if he has issues with shooting and taking care of the ball.
How the Rockets play under Mike D’Antoni
The Rockets have been at the forefront of the 3-point revolution, and they took it to new extremes in the preseason. Houston launched a whopping 55.5 3-pointers per game during the exhibition slate, compared to 45.4 in the regular season in 2018-19.
The Rockets also played really fast in the preseason, ranking sixth in pace, per NBA.com. While that’s typical of all NBA teams, this was especially notable given Houston was 27th in pace last season. Most people think of Mike D’Antoni as a run-and-gun coach, but he fully leaned into Harden slowing the pace down with isolation after isolation play.
A switch from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook naturally means you’re going to pick up the tempo. Just how fast they play will be interesting to watch. D’Antoni has already talked about how he’s just going to kind of let Harden and Westbrook do their thing, so they’re going to have free rein to play how they want, at least to a degree.
Houston will need to be on point on both ends to beat an elite Bucks team. Milwaukee plays fast and shoots a lot of 3s while also boasting one of the best defenses in the league.
It should be a good one on TNT.