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28 October 2019 19:10

Something's going to have to give with James Harden and Russell Westbrook sharing the court in Houston.

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Today's Top Picks: Best bets for ugly Thursday Night Football matchup, Bucks-Rockets and Clippers-Warriors

Social media's favorite sport has four of its marquee teams battling on its first Thursday of the season, three of whom have not played yet and two of whom have 2019 All-Stars appearing in new uniforms for the first time, and the NFL's counterprogramming is... How nice of the two sports to cooperate like this and give fans who want to watch two great basketball games the night off in football. The Bucks engineered the strategy that almost every team adopted in some fashion to defend James Harden last season: force him right, glue Brook Lopez's feet to the area adjacent to the basket, and don't give an inch off shooters. That figure would have been the best in the NBA over the full season, and while one-game samples are usually worthless, it serves to make a very basic point here: if the Clippers could do that to the Lakers, a team that should be quite good defensively, what on Earth are they going to do against the Warriors, a team that currently employs only two good defensive players on its entire roster? SportsLine predictive data engineer Mike McClure has racked up nearly $2 million in DFS winnings, and he's off to a blistering start in the new NBA season, cashing on both sites on Tuesday's Opening Night 2019 and then following that up with returns as high as 20x on DraftKings on Wednesday.

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After two days of opening-week evidence, it had become clear that the NBA meant it when it said it would emphasize travels when players begin drives with split steps. But as the Rockets began their regular season on Thursday, D'Antoni said he has enjoyed the more mature approach of his team in general. "Probably just their determination to get it done, how they approach practice every day and how they approach getting things clear between themselves, talking it out," D'Antoni said of the advantages of having such a veteran team. Without Nene, the two oldest and most Rockets players are newcomers Tyson Chandler, beginning his 19th NBA season, and Thabo Sefolosha, who began his 14th. With D'Antoni opening his fourth season as Rockets coach in the final season of his contract, he was asked again on Thursday if he felt he was on "a hot seat." He said he was, but because he is an NBA coach, rather than because of his contract.

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The Rockets feature James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who are two of the more fashion-conscious players in the league. The Houston Rockets' path to contention is pretty straightforward: Ride James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and bank on one of the NBA's most talented five-man units to carry a Western Conference that no longer boasts an overwhelming favorite. Harden and Westbrook own the two highest single-season usage rates in NBA history. Teams sagged off Westbrook as he camped out on the 3-point line in the preseason, and that strategy at least gives opposing defenses a fighter's chance at helping on Harden. Westbrook is a capable defender, but not nearly the perennial All-Defensive talent Paul was upon arriving in Houston, and the 2017 MVP has all too often taken possessions off on that end — an understandable criticism also levied at Harden, considering the offensive burden on them.

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IT WAS THE bottom of the ninth inning inside Houston's Minute Maid Park, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook sported matching orange Astros jerseys, taking in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series from the first row behind the backstop. And, of course, Harden and Westbrook have worked together, a pair of recent MVPs trying to lay the foundation for the NBA title run that neither has experienced. The friendship survived their time as rivals, on the court and in MVP voting, and Harden was the first person Westbrook called when he was looking for a new home this summer. "If Russ got it going and Russ is having one of those games that we've all seen before, guess what I'm going to do?" Harden said. "If James has it going, I'll sit there and watch," Westbrook said.

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ABOUT 100 HOURS before the Rockets' regular-season opener, coach Mike D'Antoni kicked up his feet on his couch and watched the Houston Texans' comeback attempt fall short against the Indianapolis Colts. The Rockets are adamant about another significant change: revving up the pace, which plays to Westbrook's breathtaking speed, as well as Harden's overlooked skill as one of the league's best look-ahead passers. "James was one of the greatest half-court players ever last year, but Russell in transition was even better," Morey said on Oct. 4, before the Rockets faced the LA Clippers during the preseason. Westbrook's best 3-point shooting season came during his 2016-17 MVP campaign, when he hit 34.3% from long range. D'ANTONI, FOR HIS part, chuckled at the suggestion that Westbrook's shooting woes could throw a wrench into Harden's game. Something's going to have to give with James Harden and Russell Westbrook sharing the court in Houston. "It's going to come, man," Westbrook said after the Spurs game, when he finished with 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting and twice as many turnovers (eight) as assists.