THE new-look Houston Rockets bolstered their reputation as title contenders in the coming season with a 116-96 romp over the Indiana Pacers in the first NBA preseason game to be played in the Philippines.
The Rockets opened a double-digit lead early and were never headed by a similarly loaded Indiana team in a highly anticipated game that lived up to expectations in terms of quality of play, but surprisingly failed to draw a full house at the Mall of Asia Arena on a rainy Thursday night.
James Harden, Chandler Parsons, and Jeremy Lin set the tone early for the Rockets, who chalked up their first preseason win with a team that carries so much expectations this season following the arrival of Dwight Howard and a couple of nice pickups from the free agent ranks.
The Pacers stayed within striking distance for most of the match but just couldn't get over the hump until the Rockets made the game-breaking run when the two teams allowed their bench to finish the match.
"We did a great job defensively, while we also showed some good ball movement against a strong Indiana team," said Rockets coach Kevin McHale during the post-game interview.
From the marquee players from both sides, it was only the popular Lin who was on the floor when the Rockets put the game away behind agile seven-foot Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas and Israel's Omri Casspi who went on to win Player of the Game honors.
A perfectly executed three-pass play that led to a Casspi three-point play opened a 95-82 lead for Houston. Minutes later, Lin fed a cutting Motiejunas for another layup that brought the lead to 17 points, 102-85, with five minutes to go.
The lead grew as big as 22 points, 112-90, with 2:27 to go on a Casspi three-pointer.
As the final buzzer sounded, an appreciative crowd of 12,885 rose from seats that reportedly cost as much as P50,000 and applauded the biggest collection of NBA stars to hit town.
"We had a fun game tonight playing against Indiana. We got a couple of days of practice. Now, we’re off to Taiwan. I thought we had a good atmosphere. The fans were excited and we felt the energy in the arena," added McHale, the former Boston Celtics great and basketball Hall of Famer.
Howard, however, proved a disappointment in his second game since ditching the Los Angeles Lakers to sign with the Rockets.
Undoubtedly the biggest star in the game, the 6-10 slotman never got going against the bigger Roy Hibbert as he scored just nine points and went just 1-of-4 from the free-throw line before fouling out with four minutes left in the third quarter, never to return.
Montiejunas and Casspi, however, filled up the slack with 16 and 17 points, respectively, off the bench. Harden led Houston with 21 points while Parsons added 15 and Lin 14.
Paul George led the Pacers with 17 points while David West added 14.
Despite the loss, Indiana coach Frank Vogel sees a silver lining for the team that stretched two-time champion Miami Heat to seven gruelling games in last season's Eastern Conference Finals.
"We got to work on our ball screen and transition defense," he admitted.
"But compared to last season, we’ve got some flexibility this time. Though we’ve got a long way to go. Of course, I expect more from Solomon Hill, Luis Scola, and CJ Watson."
Houston Rockets (116) -- Harden 21, Casspi 17, Motiejunas 16, Parsons 15, Lin 14, Beverley 12, Howard 9, Jones 5, Brooks 5, Brewer 2, Canaan 0, Covington 0.
Indiana Pacers (96) -- George 17, West 14, Johnson 11, Hill 10, Scola 10, Watson 9, Granger 9, Hibbert 6, Armstrong 4, Stephenson 4, Copeland 2, Sloan 0, Bulter 0, Mahinmi 0.
Quarterscores: 31-24; 61-55; 84-75; 116-96.