The Houston Rockets didn't need James Harden to take down the San Antonio Spurs 109-105 at AT&T Center on Thursday.
They didn't need Eric Gordon or John Wall either, but those two are at least still on the roster. In the first game since Harden forced a trade to the Brooklyn Nets, a shorthanded Houston team took down one of its in-state rivals with ease as Christian Wood dominated the paint.
Wall (knee soreness) and Gordon (leg tightness) aren't expected to be out for too long. When they do return, they'll join a bench that's been remade virtually overnight.
As for Thursday, head coach Stephen Silas was able to give extra minutes to Sterling Brown, David Nwaba and DeMarcus Cousins as Houston (4-6) picked up its first road win of the year. It's the first of many new combos that'll take the floor in the coming days once all the trade pieces are in their new homes.
Christian Wood, C, Houston Rockets: 27 points, 15 rebounds, 5 three-pointers
Sterling Brown, SG, Houston Rockets: 23 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists
Keldon Johnson, SF, San Antonio Spurs: 29 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists
Lonnie Walker IV, SG, San Antonio Spurs: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists
Christian Wood Continues To Impress
If the Rockets are no longer Harden's team, the rest of the season may be spent figuring out who is the new franchise cornerstone.
Ten games into the season, it seems Christian Wood may be the answer.
Wood showed off his skill set with five three-pointers, including a massive jumper from deep to tie the game at 101 with 2:30 to play.
Still just 25 years old, Wood has gone from being placed on waivers by the Milwaukee Bucks to a reserve role with the Detroit Pistons to now being the starting center of a rebuilding Houston team. He's also playing his best basketball in 2021, and it's not even all that close.
"Everybody on this team, especially with [Oladipo] coming in, has a lot to prove," Wood told the TNT broadcast after the win. "And, you know, we're all dogs out there."
Entering Thursday, Wood averaged 22.6 points and 9.5 rebounds while playing 32.9 minutes per night. In 62 games with the Pistons last year, he averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Without Harden, Wall or Gordon, Wood certainly looked like he could continue to perform at an All-Star level regardless of who is playing around him.
That will force the Rockets to wonder just how valuable a piece Wood is to the team's future. Incoming guard Victor Oladipo has plenty of experience playing with versatile big men after sharing a court with Domantas Sabonis in Indiana. The two should mesh well together in Houston. That additional scoring and distributing touch won't match Harden's efficiency, but it also doesn't need to if Wood is the future of the Rockets' frontcourt.
Against LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs, Wood continued to make his case to play a major role in the rebuild.
Keldon Johnson MIP Campaign Begins
While Wood continued his breakout against the Spurs, San Antonio's Keldon Johnson continued to build his case as 2021's most improved player.
A second-year small forward selected 29th in 2019, Johnson is quickly developing on a surprisingly successful Spurs team.
On Thursday, head coach Gregg Popovich kept putting the ball in his hands with the game still up for grabs. Johnson, in turn, kept rewarding his coach, driving through traffic to hit contested layups and finding his footing in the paint against Wood.
The Kentucky product grew up quickly during the NBA's COVID-19 hiatus to post four games with 15 or more points inside the league's bubble during the restart. Thursday saw him reach a new career high in points with 29.
Overall, the forward has gone from averaging 9.1 points in 17 games last season to 13.5 points in 11 games in 2020-21. That number is set to tick up after Johnson's outing against the Rockets. It may not slow down anytime soon.
The Spurs and Rockets will face each other again in San Antonio on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on NBA TV to wrap up a two-game series. Houston then heads to Chicago on Monday before returning home for its first game at Toyota Center without Harden. The Spurs will head to the West Coast after Saturday with games at the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors next week.