'Put on a show and fill up seats': Can this rookie duo help save the Rockets?

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LAS VEGAS — Four short seasons ago, the Houston Rockets were trying to win a championship with James Harden and Chris Paul in the backcourt. They made it all the way to the Western Conference finals before losing to the Golden State Warriors — even after leading the series 3-2.

The next season they added Carmelo Anthony, who played only 10 games in Houston. Still, the Rockets made another run to the playoffs before another disappointing end to the season at the hands of the Warriors.

Harden tried to team up with Russell Westbrook in the 2019-20 season, but failed to win a ring yet again. The entire franchise imploded and was forced to rebuild after Harden eventually voiced his unhappiness in Houston and was traded to Brooklyn. 

The Rockets won just 17 games last season, but some talent was found. Undrafted free agent Jae’Sean Tate became an unexpected sleeper addition and was named to the All-Rookie First Team after averaging 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game after settling into a starting role. 

Houston also picked up Kevin Porter Jr. in March, and he instantly fell into a comfortable rhythm, even posting 50 points against the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks on April 29.

The Rockets had four picks in July's draft and came away as the biggest winner after picking up Jalen Green with the No. 2 overall pick, Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher and Usman Garuba.

Green and Christopher have known each other since the eighth grade and were AAU teammates just two years ago.

“We don’t win, we put on a show and fill up seats,” Christopher told Yahoo Sports after teaming up with Green.

The stage was set at summer league, and Green and Christopher did the same thing two years later at Thomas & Mack Center — filling up seats and putting on a show. 

The most anticipated game of the event took place on Day 3 when the Rockets squared off with the Detroit Pistons. The arena was packed and all eyes were on the marquee matchup between Green and Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Houston's Jalen Green is guarded by Detroit's Cade Cunningham during a matchup of the top two draft picks in a summer league game at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2021. The Rockets defeated the Pistons 111-91. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Houston's Jalen Green is guarded by Detroit's Cade Cunningham during a matchup of the top two draft picks in a summer league game at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2021. The Rockets defeated the Pistons 111-91. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“I was definitely trying to get my teammates involved and not make it a one-on-one battle between me and Cade,” Green said after the game. “We ended up getting the win, and that’s all that matters.”

Christopher excelled with his lockdown defense and his on-court chemistry with Green was apparent from tipoff. Green finished with 25 points, five rebounds and three assists, while Christopher added 15 points and seven assists.

“It’s been super fun playing with Josh,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “It started on draft night after I found out we were on the same team. I called him and went crazy.”

“It’s a blessing, honestly. To be able to come into the NBA and share it with one of your brothers, I don’t even know how to explain it,” Christopher added. “The game comes easy to us because I’m able to see him and I know where he wants the ball. It becomes more of a simple game, and I love having my brother on the team.”

Both Porter Jr. and Green are extremely athletic and will make for an entertaining backcourt duo this season. Sengun, a center from Turkey, is the dark horse of the group and did a little bit of everything at summer league, showing off his deep range on offense and elite shot-blocking on defense. He averaged a double-double with 14.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

“[Sengun's] been amazing and my thing is, whoever has the hot hand, I’m going to feed them the ball,” Christopher said. “He has a lot of respect for the game and his teammates and I feel like people don’t even realize how good of a player he is yet. We’re seeing it early and some of the stuff he does in practice is crazy.”

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There still might be some hurt in Houston with the departure of Harden, but the future is bright with the young core the Rockets have assembled. Bringing Christopher and Green in together was a huge win with on-court chemistry already in place. The Bucks built a championship-caliber team from the ground up with a little bit of patience. The Rockets could be on their way to making some noise in the Western Conference with the same strategy.

“There’s so much more to come and we still have so much more to learn, but it’s going to be a fun season and you can expect a lot from me and Josh and the whole team,” Green said.

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