Harden and Westbrook back together to chase title in Houston

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              Houston Rockets' James Harden celebrates his three-point basket during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Toronto Raptors Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Saitama, near Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden and Russell Westbrook are thrilled to be reunited in Houston and can’t wait to prove they will work just fine together.

And Harden knows the rest of the team is excited about the addition of the eight-time All-Star as well.

“I enjoy it but I know that everybody else enjoys it, too,” he said. “They get more shot opportunities … with another guy that gets to the rim and draws so much attention to create opportunities for his teammates. Obviously he plays at a different pace than I do. He plays way faster than I do but we are both trying to accomplish the same thing, making sure our teammates get involved and we share the wealth.”

Westbrook joined the Rockets this summer in a stunning trade that sent the longtime face of the Oklahoma City Thunder to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul. The deal brought Harden and Westbrook back together after the guards spent three seasons together with the Thunder at the start of Harden’s career.

It was a trade that came with questions about how two players used to handling the ball will be able to work together. Both brushed off the concerns, and insist they’ll make it work to chase an NBA championship in a conference loaded with powerhouse teams.

“I impact the game in so many different ways and I’ve proven that for many years and that’s why I’m not worried,” Westbrook said. “I don’t have to have the ball to impact the game. I don’t have to score. I can defend. I can rebound. I can pass. I can lead.”

Westbrook, the 2017 MVP who is entering his 12th season, said statistics don’t matter to him.

“My main goal and main focus is to win,” he said. “I can go in a game and be scoreless and if we win that’s the best thing that ever happened and that’s all I care about and all I’ve always cared about.”

Harden, who led the NBA in scoring last season for the second straight year by averaging 36.1 points, said he welcomes having another player on the team who can lessen his load a bit. And while Harden believes that Westbrook will help the Rockets get to the next level, he’s comfortable with the fact that the team’s success or failure will always be linked to his performance.

“If we don’t win I’ll take all the blame for it,” he said. “It comes with it. That’s why we have to go out there and win. That’s why we work extremely hard in the offseason to bring players in and bring whatever is necessary in to give ourselves that chance to win. I know what’s at stake.”

The Rockets open the season Oct. 24 against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

CHINA RELATIONS

The Rockets are eager to move on from the distraction caused by a since-deleted tweet by general manager Daryl Morey in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong that angered China and many fans.

The Rockets were in Hawaii on Oct. 4 to play a preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers on the first leg of a trip that included two games in Japan when Morey tweeted an image that said: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” His tweet was in reference to pro-democracy demonstrations in the semiautonomous Chinese territory that has been mired in escalating violence between protesters and law enforcement.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly rebuked his GM with a tweet saying that Morey does not speak for the team, but the damage was done. The Chinese Basketball Association, headed by former Rockets star Yao Ming, suspended its ties to the Rockets over the tweet. Events in China promoting a Lakers-Nets series were canceled, NBA media partner Tencent said it was evaluating its plans to cover the league and some Chinese corporations have suspended relationships with the NBA.

HOUSE PARTY

The Rockets signed G/F Danuel House to a three-year, $11.1 million contract this summer after the 26-year-old split time between Houston and the G-League last season. Coach Mike D’Antoni is glad he’ll have House in Houston all season this year after he averaged 9.4 points in 39 games last year.

“Danuel House excites me,” D’Antoni said. “He should have a big year.”

HEY OLD FRIEND

Power forward Ryan Anderson is back with the Rockets after signing as a free agent just before the start of camp. The 12-year veteran spent two seasons in Houston before being traded before last season.

HARDEN’S LEADERSHIP

D’Antoni doesn’t believe Harden can do much more statistically this season after putting up gaudy numbers the past several seasons. But he likes the way he’s grown as a leader in the last couple of years and hopes to see him continue to evolve in that area this season.

“His leadership is getting better every year,” D’Antoni said. “He understands the importance of being positive. That’s invaluable and it’s invaluable that we keep that attitude all year.”