The biggest story of the NBA preseason didn't suit up until Tuesday. Yes, yes, as much fun as players like Talen Horton-Tucker and Theo Maledon have been, the on-court action pales in comparison to the drama surrounding James Harden and the Houston Rockets. The former MVP still wants out, yet without a deal in place, he must go through the uncomfortable dance of wearing a Rockets uniform until a trade can be found.
He did so for the first time this preseason on Tuesday. That was the headliner of the night, but plenty more came out of the evening's small but tantalizing three-game slate.
NBA preseason scores for Tuesday, Dec. 15
- Philadelphia 76ers 108, Boston Celtics 99
- Houston Rockets 112, San Antonio Spurs 98
- Sacramento Kings 114, Golden State Warriors 113
A hard situation for Harden
Harden is going to play for the Rockets because he is contractually obligated to play for the Rockets. That isn't going to make the games he does play in red and white any less awkward, and a choppy preseason debut was proof of that. Yes, there were flashes of his typical brilliance.
But he shot only 3-of-10 from the field in an uneven offensive night. His backcourt partner John Wall again stole the show with 15 points and three steals, but despite his prior recruiting efforts, he didn't exactly seem enthusiastic about Harden's willingness to remain in Houston.
"At the end of the day, he's going to do what's best for him," Wall told reporters. "The organization is going to what's best for them also."
The best thing for all parties involved is a trade. It doesn't need to come right this second, but Harden no longer appears interested in ticking away his prime on a sub-championship-caliber team, and the Rockets, with an overhauled roster, should embrace that wave of change to give themselves a chance to rebuild after he's gone.
Pritchard pays off
The Boston Celtics wanted to pick Tyler Herro. It's one of the worst-kept secrets in basketball. They came one slot short when the Miami Heat grabbed him at No. 13 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. Around 15 months later, Herro was knocking them out of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals. Not only did they miss out on the young shot-creator of their dreams, but they had to watch that player in the NBA Finals at their expense.
That's the sort of loss that can haunt an organization for a decade. The Celtics may never get over their ex, but they've found a new love in a rookie from Oregon with a somewhat similar game. Payton Pritchard isn't as big as Tyler Herro. He's not as skilled yet either. But he certainly looked like Herro in dropping 16 points on 60 percent shooting in his first game as a professional.
Pritchard isn't the only rookie guard to post gaudy numbers in a preseason game. Malachi Flynn drew this same love on Monday. But it's hard not to notice Pritchard flashing that elite shotmaking that made him a First-Team All-American at Oregon and think about the guard Boston almost drafted a year earlier. No, Pritchard is not Herro. But he might just be able to occupy the role Boston intended for him last season, and help lead them past Herro's Heat in a playoff rematch this season.
Stephen Curry has entered the chat
Rumors of Stephen Curry's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Curry's 3-of-10 shooting night in the preseason opener launched a wave of Warriors pessimism. How would they be able to score without supernova Curry? Well, if Tuesday was any indication, supernova Curry isn't going anywhere.
Curry finished the game with 29 points on 11-of-21 shooting in 28 minutes. The numbers themselves were impressive, but the aggressive manner in which he came by them stood out. Golden State's egalitarian offense usually finds Curry shots in the flow of the system. He typically isn't Harden, dominating the ball and racking up absurd volume.
But without Klay Thompson, Curry will have to generate more of his own shots this season. He did just that on Tuesday, attacking the basket and finishing in traffic like a much younger guard. Curry might not have the best roster in basketball supporting him anymore, but we're going to see flashes of his MVP self again this season. Tuesday was just the start.