The Lakers survived an offensive explosion from James Harden, who looked like an MVP candidate with 34 points, 17 assists and eight rebounds. Their effort was led by Jordan Clarkson's 25 points off the bench and a 20-point effort from D'Angelo Russell.
“That’s just one (game),” Clarkson said. “We’ve got to keep it going. We want to go on a streak. We want to win more games. That’s what we’re going on this road trip to do.”
Russell looked comfortable in his skin for perhaps the first time under new coach Luke Walton. He knocked down four of his 10 three-point attempts, was one of two Lakers starters to get to the free-throw line—the other being Julius Randle—and looked unburdened, something you could rarely say during a tumultuous rookie season.
Speaking to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Russell admitted it's nice to get out of the shadow of last season:
I’ll tell you what it felt like: It felt like a home game. Last year, we had Kobe and the fans. We had some diehard Lakers fans, and Kobe fans. But we had so many guys who didn’t have identities for the fans to recognize. But today, it felt like a home game.
You go to Utah, or Houston—and they’re rooting for their team. Here, this is the home of the NBA. People come to the see the show, too. Don’t get me wrong: They’re all Lakers fans. They’re incredible, but they want to see the show, too.
The 2015-16 Lakers often resembled a sideshow more than a basketball team. Kobe Bryant's farewell tour enveloped the entire organization, including the coaching staff. Former head coach Byron Scott ceded at Bryant's every wish and seemed to have an odd disdain for the young Russell, giving him inconsistent minutes and chastising him at times in the media.
While some of that was undoubtedly tough-love coaching, Russell looks far more confident already under Walton.
In his first season as an actual head coach, Walton appears to be bringing the same steady hand as he did last season subbing for head coach Steve Kerr in Golden State. He has gone 40-4 overall in his coaching career, though Wednesday night was his first official win.
"It feels good. It feels really good," Walton told reporters. "The guys really fought tonight. A big part of what we're trying to do is develop this identity, this culture."
Perhaps Walton's biggest task will be getting his young roster to buy into a defensive identity. The Rockets missed a ton of open shots, particularly in the fourth quarter. There aren't many nights when their shooter-laden roster is going to shoot 7-of-29 from three-point range.
While complimenting his offensive performance, Walton admitted defense is his first priority going forward.
"Our offense?" Walton told reporters. "I don't know. I keep stressing defense, but our offense is definitely looking better than our defense. But honestly, I think we put an emphasis on sharing the ball, just hitting the next open guy and not standing."
Russell, who seems well removed from his Snapchat fiasco with teammate Nick Young, seems optimistic.
“We have the talent,” Russell told the Vertical. “We have the coach. We can do some things this year.”