LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul and James Harden have been training together since the Houston Rockets acquired Paul from the LA Clippers in a trade last month. They made their public debut as teammates Sunday in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Los Angeles' famed Drew League.
Harden finished with game highs of 27 points and 12 rebounds, while adding six assists and two steals for his LAUNFD (pronounced "L.A. Unified") team, which pulled out an 83-81 win over a Home Town Favorites team that featured current NBA players Jordan Bell, Delon Wright and Tim Hardaway Jr.
In the first half, the two point guards, who now must learn to share a backcourt, seemed to trade off ballhandling and playmaking duties with one player firmly in control of the possession and the other spotting up to shoot. But as the game went on, there was more synergy to their games.
It's a harmonizing process they've worked on all summer, in open-court runs in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It'll continue in the fall as well, as Rockets teammate Bobby Brown said the team is planning to continue to train together in L.A., then again in the Bahamas in late August.
It was something the Rockets did last summer as well, as they began learning coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and facilitating Harden's change to a lead guard position.
"That really helped us jell last year," Brown said.
Despite playing for the Clippers for the previous six seasons, Paul had never played in the Drew League before Sunday's game.
Paul watched Harden the week before, though, and he shook off a slow start to finish with 13 points and 10-assists. Before the prior week's game, Brown informed Paul that he would need to play in order to be eligible for the Drew League playoffs that will start Friday.
"CP came to the game last week and he was itching to play," Brown said. "After that, he texted me saying, 'Yo, I want to play. Think it would be cool if I could play with y'all?' I said, 'No problem. It's the Drew League, you haven't played yet. You get your shine, you get your welcoming to the Drew on a good team, with your brother [Harden].'
"That was an easy call. He had fun," added Brown, a four-time Drew League champion. "JH always has fun. Me and James have been playing together for the third year in a row."
It was a star-studded event for the Drew League. Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade made it to the game to watch courtside, along with Toronto Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who played earlier in the day with Nick Young of the Golden State Warriors and Julius Randle of the Los Angeles Lakers.
"There were hundreds of people outside waiting, coming and going because they couldn't get in," Drew League commissioner Chaniel Smiley said of the packed crowd Sunday. "Today's crowd had to be on my top-two list."
LAUNFD started the game with Harden, Paul, Bobby Brown, former NBA player Pooh Jeter, and 2018 ESPN 100 top high school player Marvin Bagley III. Home Town Favorites started Delon Wright, 12-year NBA veteran Dorell Wright, Hardaway, Golden State Warriors rookie Jordan Bell and USC sophomore DeAnthony Melton.
The stakes were actually high for Harden and Paul's LAUNFD team, as they had to win to make the league's postseason. Home Town Favorites got off to the fast start, getting 11 first quarter points from Hardaway to lead 29-22. Home Town Favorites led at halftime 44-40, with Paul making only one-of-eight from the field.
But Paul turned it on in the third quarter, making three 3-pointers and showing off his handle along the baseline at one point before making a step-back to force a Home Town Favorites timeout. LAUNFD outscored Home Town Favorites 26-9 in the third quarter before holding on to win.
LAUNFD played a lot like the Houston Rockets that GM Daryl Morey has fostered this decade, making and attempting more 3-pointers (16-of-44) than 2-pointers (15-of-35). Harden (6-of-15 on 3s) and Paul (3-of-11 on 3s) were a big part of that offensive mix, something that Brown noted was intentional.
"At the end of the day, our strong suit is shooting 3s," Brown said. "We knew what type of game it was going to be. We knew the type of players we had. We just stuck through to the end and we came out with the win."
At one point late in the game, Harden was stripped of the ball by Dorell Wright, leaving Harden shaken up and holding his left thumb. Harden would finish the game, but it was an uncomfortable moment for Houston Rockets CEO Tad Brown, who was sitting courtside.
"It was fun," Brown said about the game. "It got a little suspect there when James wrecked his thumb. But overall, it was fun."
It was reported that Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook would suit up for Home Town Favorites, and while Wright explained that there were conversations about Westbrook playing, he said that Westbrook is "in a different situation than a lot of us."
"We talk about it often, you know, for the past few years. He wants to get out here," said Wright, who, like Westbrook, went to Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California. "[Westbrook] has a lot on the table right now. I'm pretty sure that whatever he had going on today, he had to handle that.
"He'll get out here one of these days, and everybody will be pretty happy," Wright added.
If Westbrook would have played, he would have had to negotiate with Melton to wear his signature No. 0.
"No, no, no, no," Melton said when asked if he would have given up the number to Westbrook. "OK, maybe, we'll see, I don't know. He didn't come, so that's all we know," Melton added with a smile on his face.
The Drew League will continue into August as they prepare to host Jamal Crawford and the Seattle Pro-Am "The Crawsover" in Los Angeles on Wednesday for an invitational. The next two weekends will be Drew League playoffs, which Harden and Paul will now be eligible to play in.