1. Rockets' New Man Soars Like Never Before
ESPN.com TrueHoop Network
James Harden used a high screen, split a pair of Pistons defenders and drove for an and-1 layup -- the Rockets' final basket in a 105-96 win Wednesday. Omer Asik, the wide-bodied center who set the quality screen, and Chandler Parsons hugged Harden below the hoop. Houston's bench gave a standing ovation.
And Harden's trademark beard parted just enough to reveal a smile.
It's still a whirlwind, and on Wednesday, it caught the Pistons. Now, other NBA teams must worry they're next.
Harden came to Houston ready to move quickly, especially when it came to getting the max contract extension the Thunder never offered.
"It's very important, but I'll let my agent and the front office deal with that," Harden said earlier in the week.
They delivered -- to the tune of five years and $80 million.
"My focus is on, how can I make this team better?" Harden continued. "Hopefully, we can get it done soon."
Then he delivered -- to the tune of 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals and a block.
Only three other players in the past 25 years have hit those numbers in a single game: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Dwyane Wade. And here was Harden doing it just four days after being traded to Houston.
"I thought it was a challenge for James to kind of figure out what we were doing," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "We put some plays in that he was comfortable with that they ran at Oklahoma City."
If this is how Harden plays while he doesn't know what he's doing, it's incomprehensible how he'll play once he does.
Harden excelled inside (8-of-10 in the restricted area) and outside (4-of-10 beyond the arc). Nearly all his assists led to a dunk, layup or 3-pointer. And the running Rockets had an offensive rating of 175 after his steals, meaning almost two points per possession.
It was a bit absurd Harden faced concerns about whether he could succeed as a starter -- you don't play 31.4 minutes per game against only reserves -- but he answered that question Wednesday.
However, a big question remains: Is Harden a star?
One game against a team that was 22nd in defensive rating last season cannot sufficiently answer that, but Harden took a step in the right direction.
He finished 26th in #NBARank, 30th in Player Efficiency Rating, 20th in estimated wins added, sixth in win shares and 15th in wins above replacement player after last season. By any reasonable measure, he was already at least very good and maybe even a star.
As the Rockets give him more minutes and more shots, we'll get a much clearer answer, and that's great for the NBA, based on the league's agenda during the lockout.
Among many other issues, the lockout was about preventing super teams and giving more markets a chance to build a good team. In that regard, the new collective bargaining agreement worked, as the Thunder -- leery of the more punitive luxury tax -- sent Harden to Houston, where he's pumping new life into a franchise that had swung and missed in its previous attempts to land a top player (Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard). Wednesday's performance, at least temporarily, justified everything Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has been trying to do.
This must be great for Jeremy Lin, too. He escaped New York, where questions about how the Knicks players fit together dominated -- and still dominate -- the discussion.
On Wednesday, there was no issue with the Rockets' backcourt. Harden and Lin meshed beautifully. With their strong outside shooting, quick slashing and keen court awareness, they spread the floor wonderfully for each other and their teammates.
The Rockets are still one or two quality forwards from contending. Heck, they might be one or two quality forwards from even making the playoffs. But with Harden and Lin -- and the bruising Asik to set screens for them -- they're off to a good start.
When the Thunder, one of the league's elite teams, traded him to a franchise that has missed the past three playoffs, it could have been crushing to Harden.
But he said he embraced all of it -- being the focal point of an offense, serving as a team leader, starting regularly for the first time in his career -- and as Asik and Parsons embraced him under the hoop, Harden had good reason to smile.
The Houston Rockets, his new team -- his team -- won their first of game of their new era.
A whirlwind? Absolutely.
Dan Feldman's work appears regularly at the TrueHoop blog Piston Powered.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Jamal Crawford. When Crawford goes supernova like this, he's impossible to stop. Just ask Tony Allen, who was left grasping at air as Crawford danced his way to a game-high 29 points in 28 minutes.
Defining Moment: The Clippers and Grizzlies rivalry can best be described as predictable chaos. Both teams turned it over a ton (39 TOs combined) and wrestled under the rim, but when the game got tight, Chris Paul made plays that no Grizzlies player could.
X Factor: Bench play. The Clippers' bench outscored the Grizzlies 49-17. When Lamar Odom and Eric Bledsoe are defending their tails off, the Clippers' depth is mighty imposing.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Damian Lillard. The rookie point guard scored inside and out, set up his teammates, and pushed Portland's pace. With 23 points and 11 assists, Lillard became the first player to pile up more than 21 points and nine assists in his NBA debut since LeBron James in 2003.
X Factor: Steve Nash's injury. After banging knees with Lillard in the second quarter, Nash went to the locker room. He returned to start the second half but, visibly hobbled, came right back out with what was called a "left leg contusion." He did not return.
That Was ... Porous: When the Lakers dropped Tuesday's opener against Dallas, criticisms of the Princeton offense came flying. But Wednesday, the Lakers scored. They just couldn't get a stop. The Blazers scored 30 or more points in each of the first three quarters, topping the 100-point mark just minutes into the fourth.
Recap | Box score
MVP: In his first game after the Thunder traded him to the Rockets, James Harden (37 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals) put to rest any notion that he can't be a star.
X Factor: Jeremy Lin (12 points, 8 assists, 4 steals and an astounding plus-23) left the game in the third quarter with foul trouble, causing Houston to struggle. When on the court, his passing, driving and awareness helped the Rockets space the floor incredibly well.
Defining Moment: Just before halftime, a fog machine went off at The Palace and steamed up the court. Pistons workers struggled to turn it off, spoiling a bit of the opening-night show. Although the Pistons had a few impressive runs, they never had a way to turn off the Rockets' potent offense, either.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Suns-killer Carl Landry scored six of Golden State's final eight points to thwart the Suns' comeback bid. He tallied 17 points and six boards on 7-for-9 shooting in just 23 minutes off the bench.
LVP: Fresh off signing his four-year extension earlier in the day, Stephen Curry did not play like a $44 million man. Curry missed his first 10 shots, bricked 12 of 14 overall and misfired on two late free throws that could have sealed it.
X Factor: P.J. Tucker injected the Suns with so much energy that coach Alvin Gentry chained supposed go-to guy Michael Beasley to the bench in the fourth. Tucker's hustle to go with his 10 points kept the Suns close.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Jazz players named Williams (Mo and Marvin) scored 42 points, hit four of seven 3-pointers, blocked three shots, hit 10 of 10 free throws, gave out seven assists and got several standing ovations.
Definining Moment: After an emotional win in L.A. against the Lakers the night before, Dallas ran out of gas in the second half and was outscored 37-13 in the third quarter.
That Was ... Spooky To See Such Up-Tempo Style From The Traditionally Plodding Jazz: The new-look Jazz also excited the Halloween crowd with a barrage of previously unseen 3s (six) from the newcomers Williams, Williams and Randy Foye.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Joakim Noah put in an extremely well-rounded night for the Bulls. He scored an efficient 23 points (6-of-12 from the field, 11-of-12 on free throws) while adding 10 rebounds, three assists, five steals and three blocks.
LVP: James Johnson went just 1-for-8 from the field and turned it over four times in his 21 minutes. He recorded a negative-13 plus/minus in the short amount of time he played. Not quite starter production.
X Factor: Chicago converted on Sacramento's mistakes, while the Kings didn't. The Bulls scored 25 points off 21 Sacramento turnovers. On the other hand, the Kings scored just 13 points off 18 Bulls turnovers.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Tim Duncan -- 24 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, three assists. Duncan was his vintage self, and he almost had the foot speed and explosiveness to go with it. It won't happen often, so cherish it when it does.
X Factor: Kawhi Leonard's third quarter. The Spurs played abysmal defense in the first quarter, and it wasn't much better in the second quarter. In the third quarter, Leonard went wild. He jumped passing lanes, got out on the break and single-handedly broke up the New Orleans offense.
That Was ... What It's All About: So often games are billed as matchups between two great players, but they rarely turn out that way. For an important stretch in the fourth quarter, we got to see the great Duncan match up with the soon-to-be-great Anthony Davis, and it was everything we could have wanted.
3. Wednesday's Best
James Harden, Rockets: The beard? Feared, as perhaps never before. Stepping into the Rockets' starting lineup, Harden had 37 points and 12 assists in a 105-96 victory over the Pistons. In case you were wondering, Harden first returns to OKC on Nov. 28.
4. Wednesday's Worst
New-look Lakers: This is looking a bit like the start LeBron had with the Heat in 2010. The Lakers never have much luck in Portland anyway, but the Lakers fell 116-106 and fell to 0-2. To add injury to insult, Steve Nash hobbled off with a knee injury.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I think I just wanted to get out there and play."
-- James Harden, after his journey to the Rockets followed a trade Saturday night from Oklahoma City. Then he agreed Wednesday on a five-year, $80 million contract extension.
8. Davis Debut
9. Stat Check
Damian Lillard made a great first impression by scoring 23 points and adding 11 assists for the Trail Blazers as they topped the Lakers. Lillard joined Oscar Robertson (21 points, 10 assists for the Cincinnati Royals in 1960) and Isiah Thomas (31 points, 11 assists for the Pistons in 1981) as the only players in NBA history with 20 or more points and at least 10 assists in their NBA debuts.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Hawes Rules Middle
MVP: Spencer Hawes, despite the dual indignities of a mullet and a preseason relegation to a bench role, was tremendous. After hitting all of three 3-pointers last season, Spencer hit a pair in the first half and finished with a fat 16-point/12-rebound/five-block (!) line.
LVP: Andre Iguodala will doubtless spend the postgame telling everyone with a notebook that he wasn't pressing in his inglorious return to the Wells Fargo Center. Not the way it looked from the cheap seats. The most recent Philly AI to decamp to Denver spent the first quarter forcing shots, then disappeared, finishing with 11 points on 13 shots and a plus/minus of negative-19.
X Factor: Defense. Minus the perennially stingy Iguodala and the sneakily stout Elton Brand, it was unclear whether the Sixers would be able to maintain the high level of defensive play that's been their hallmark in recent seasons. Looks like they will be. The revamped 76ers held an explosive Denver offense to 37.5 percent shooting and forced it into 22 turnovers. Newcomer Dorell Wright was especially active.
How West Won
MVP: Look at the stat sheet, the highlights, the locker room. It's the same guy it was all last season for Indiana: David West. He scored 21 of Indiana's 42 second-half points, including 14 in the fourth quarter. He also made two excellent passes to an open George Hill in the corner on possessions that netted the Pacers five points.
X Factor: George Hill. The newly uber-rich point guard who missed the entire preseason due to injury hit a big 3 to cut Toronto's lead to three with just more than three minutes left. Then, he won the first game he has played in since May by choosing to keep the ball on a pick-and-roll and hitting a floater in the lane with just 2.1 seconds left.
That Was ... The National Basketball Association: On a Wednesday night that was better known for people dressing up as monsters, 30 men donned jerseys to play professional basketball and give the league its first #LeaguePassAlert of the season. Except David West. He did go as something scary enough to petrify a dinosaur for Halloween.