HOUSTON — After a lengthy silence, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey became an active social media user again on Thursday. He posted multiple promotional messages about the Rockets on Twitter hours before the team’s season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Morey watched the bulk of the game from the Rockets’ video room at Toyota Center — as he usually does — and was treated to an uneven and ultimately disappointing performance from his new star pairing of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Hoping for a statement victory over an Eastern Conference power to finally inch away from the October tension this franchise has endured, Houston played at a faster pace than usual but proved unable to finish off the Bucks — even after the Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled out.
Neither Harden nor Westbrook shot the ball well in Milwaukee’s 117-111 triumph, combining to make just nine of 30 shots from the field. Worse yet, Houston squandered a 16-point lead, then failed to take advantage after Antetokounmpo picked up his sixth foul with 5 minutes 18 seconds to play.
Westbrook led the Rockets with 24 points — 16 coming in the final quarter — but Harden (19 points) shot 2-for-13 from the field and Houston guard Eric Gordon shot 4-for-19. Antetokounmpo posted a triple-double before exiting (30 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists), then watched from the bench as Ersan Ilyasova (13 points) and Brook Lopez (11 points) carried the Bucks’ offense in crunchtime.
On Oct. 4, Morey posted a tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong that he quickly deleted. He posted two more tweets on Oct. 6 trying to clarify his stance, then went dark on social media until opening night arrived for the remade Rockets.
The initial tweet created a furor in China — where the Rockets have been one of the N.B.A.’s most popular teams since drafting Yao Ming in 2002 — and led to an exodus of Chinese sponsors that has cost the Rockets an estimated $25 million in revenue already this season, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver has said that, for the league, revenue losses “have already been substantial.”
Morey and the Rockets’ team owner, Tilman Fertitta, met briefly before the game and then proceeded to their customary vantage points. For Fertitta, that was a courtside seat. Morey, who has spoken often of the extreme anxiety he feels when watching the Rockets play, preferred to stay out of public view.
The Harden-Westbrook tandem, reunited for the first time since their previous shared team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, traded Harden to Houston in October 2012, drew a sellout crowd of 18,055. That included several fans wearing T-shirts and toting signs with pro-Hong Kong slogans, including a large group behind one basket in shirts bearing the messages “Fight for Freedom” and “China, Stop Bullying.”
The Rockets’ marquee personalities did their utmost to drag the focus back to basketball — and all the hoopla that goes with it in the modern-day N.B.A. Upholding a promise Harden made on media day in September, before any of the China chaos, the Rockets installed a red carpet to greet players as they enter the building, with a house disc jockey nearby to add music to the mood.
Harden was the first to enter the building, roughly 90 minutes before tipoff. He wore a white Helmut Lang windbreaker with matching pants and sang along to “Time” by Lil Baby (featuring Meek Mill) as he strutted down the hall. Westbrook soon followed, in an off-white ensemble.
Amid strains of skepticism around the league about whether two players so accustomed to having the ball in their hands could form an elite partnership at this stage of their careers, the reunited stars were clearly committed to embracing a shared status as fashion influencers.
A similar determination held up for Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni, in terms of dealing with outsize expectations — and an uncertain future. Asked directly before the game if he feels as if he is sitting on a hot seat after contract extension talks collapsed twice during the off-season, D’Antoni answered candidly.
“You tell me what coach in the N.B.A. is not on the hot seat,” said D’Antoni, who is in the final season of his original four-year Rockets deal. “They’re all on the hot seat. You’re always on it. That’s life. It doesn’t affect me.”