The Houston Rockets had reason to expect growing pains in the early stages of this season given their reliance on talented yet relatively inexperienced players to orchestrate their rebuild.
The first step was a doozy. The Rockets trailed by as many as 35 points in their 124-106 road loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. The young backcourt tandem of Kevin Porter Jr. and rookie Jalen Green shot a combined 8 for 26 while totaling 20 points. Porter had nine of the Rockets’ 24 turnovers while Green posted a plus/minus of minus-37 in 32 minutes.
The Rockets are anticipating better days ahead, perhaps as early as Friday when they host the Oklahoma City Thunder in their home opener at Toyota Center.
Minnesota scored 38 points off those Houston turnovers and dominated in other facets that showcased a glaring physical advantage, with 13 blocked shots jumping off the stat sheet. The Rockets are a relatively lithe team, not just with Porter and Green at guard but also with 6-foot-9 Christian Wood, arguably their best player, operating at center.
Houston got its first taste of an opponent attempting bully tactics, and based on the result, it certainly won’t be the last time.
“The physicality was going to be an issue that we would have to step up to,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “I think their physicality, their attention, their aggression led to some turnovers that we had early in the game and it definitely snowballed off those turnovers.
“It’s a learning experience for sure. And we’ve got to do better.”
Like the Rockets, the Thunder skew heavily toward youth. Guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the undeniable leader and linchpin for the Thunder, the focal point of their rebuilding plan.
But Gilgeous-Alexander is 23 years old and is entering his fourth season. Darius Bazley and Lu Dort are complementary pieces, but both have just two seasons of NBA experience under their belts and are 21 and 22 years old, respectively. And in the opener Wednesday at Utah, the Thunder played four rookies: Josh Giddey, Vit Krejci, Tre Mann and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
“They went out there and competed. They didn’t look overwhelmed at all,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “They competed, played to the game plan and gave us good minutes.”
While the Thunder mustered a spirited effort, their lone lead came when Gilgeous-Alexander scored the first basket of the game. Utah led by as many as 26 points en route to a 107-86 victory, leaving Oklahoma City to hang its hat on the effort as opposed to the result, a scenario likely to unfold numerous times over the course of an 82-game schedule.
“We did a lot of good things against a really, really good team,” Daigneault said. “There’s a lot of lessons we can draw from it and it’s good to play against a team like them because they’re going to expose the things that you need to improve at and we’re going to get to work to improve those.”