Basketball: Controversy-Hit Rockets Beat Raptors

Saitama, Japan, Oct 10 (AFP/APP): The Houston Rockets won a preseason exhibition game against the NBA champion Toronto Raptors 118-111 on Thursday, ending their Japan tour shadowed by controversy after a tweet by their general manager sparked outrage in China.

Former NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook, traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder, scored 22 points after making his Rockets debut in Japan on Tuesday. Rockets star James Harden also scored 22 points and grabbed nine assists.

Westbrook told reporters that he still needs to adjust to his new team, but he was moving in the “right direction”. Pascal Siakam, the 2019 Most Improved Player, scored 16 points for the Raptors, who won Tuesday’s game 134-129. Norman Powell added 22 and guard Fred VanVleet contributed 10 points and 10 assists.

Siakam opened the game with a dunk for the Raptors, but the Rockets quickly took the lead with Harden, Westbrook and Eric Gordon netting 3-pointers.

The Raptors answered with VanVleet’s solid defence and Powell’s dynamic 3-pointers, closing the first half with a 63-55 lead. But the Rockets took back the lead in the early fourth quarter and Ben McLemore made a game-clinching 3-pointer for the Rockets down the stretch, fending off a Raptors late charge.

The two exhibition games took place after a tweet by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey backing anti-government protests in Hong Kong kicked up a storm in China.

It led to Chinese sponsors abandoning the team and the state-run TV network banishing them from the airwaves. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, currently in Shanghai for a separate set of preseason games, said the organisation would continue to “support freedom of expression and certainly freedom of expression of the NBA community”.

“It’s tough situation, very difficult,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters as he declined to comment on the furore, saying: “I coach basketball. I’m not a diplomat.” Questions to players were limited by organisers to the sport.

The Rockets will now head to Houston to take on the San Antonio Spurs in a home preseason game next week, while the Raptors will play a home preseason game against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. The Houston Rockets won more than 50 games but missed the Western Conference finals last season after they were defeated by the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors had a stellar season, however, becoming the first NBA champions from outside the United States by dethroning Golden State in the finals. But the Toronto side now face a tough season after NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left for the Los Angeles Clippers.

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