Harden set to start for shorthanded Rockets at Portland
A shorthanded version of the Houston Rockets, including star James Harden but without six other players, will try again Saturday to open the season.
The Rockets, with just nine available players, one above the NBA minimum, are prepared to play a Saturday road game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Houston had to postpone its scheduled Wednesday home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder when it had fewer than eight players available due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.
Before the Thunder game was scrapped, new Rockets guard John Wall delivered straightforward words on hopes and expectations for the 2020-21 season.
“The only expectations I have are staying healthy,” Wall said. “That’s how I feel for any of us, just all stay healthy and go out there and play basketball. That’s all I can focus on because I haven’t played in so long.”
Good health could be translated to “virus-free” in the current lexicon, and by that measure, the Rockets are not. Kenyon Martin Jr. and Ben McLemore are sidelined following positive COVID-19 tests.
The Rockets listed six players as unavailable for Saturday: McLemore and Martin, who are self-isolating away from the team, plus Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Gordon and Mason Jones, who are quarantined due to contact tracing.
Interestingly, Harden was absent from the daily injury report after reportedly testing negative a fourth time in as many days Friday. Harden was fined $50,000 for violating the league’s health and safety protocols after he attended a private indoor party Monday. He was listed as unavailable for the Thunder game that didn’t happen but is expected to start against Portland.
The Rockets’ thin bench will include two undrafted rookie free agents, Jae’Sean Tate and Brodric Thomas.
The Trail Blazers’ early-season issues are more traditional.
Having entered this season seemingly reinforced defensively, Portland surrendered 120 points to the visiting Utah Jazz on Wednesday, allowing 19 3-pointers (on 50 attempts). Portland, which trailed by as many as 23 points while surrendering 65 first-half points, also was hammered on the boards. Utah posted a 59-40 rebounding edge and finished with a 17-8 edge in second-chance points.
Add to those woes subpar efforts from Blazers star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and Portland barely resembled a team poised to make a leap in the Western Conference. Lillard posted a scoreless first half en route to a quiet nine-point, seven-assist effort as he shot 4-for-12 from the floor. McCollum, who earned a late-game technical foul, managed 23 points, but he hit only 7 of 19 field-goal attempts.
“It was a tough night offensively and defensively for our team,” Lillard said, “but it’s a long season like we always say, and we can’t let losing one game cause us to lose two and three.
“It’s one game. We didn’t play great in the preseason, and this isn’t how we wanted to start our season. I think we’ve got to be a little more assertive in correcting ourselves and demanding more of each other.”
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