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Raptors smother Rockets




PASCAL Siakam powers the Toronto Raptors past the Houston Rockets in an NBA preseason game.   AFP

SAITAMA, Japan (AFP) — NBA champion Toronto Raptors won a preseason game over the Houston Rockets, 134-129, in a matchup overshadowed by a controversial tweet from a Houston executive that angered China.

Pascal Siakam, the 2019 Most Improved Player, scored 24 points for the Raptors as Serge Ibaka added 18 markers and guard Fred VanVleet chipping in 16.

Three-time All Star Marc Gasol stayed on the Toronto bench.

Former NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook, traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder, made his Rockets debut by scoring 13 points.

Rockets star James Harden netted a game-high 34 points and center Clint Capela added 12 for Houston.

Ibaka opened the game with a double for the Raptors, but the Rockets quickly took the lead as Harden sank a dynamic three-pointer.

He hit another late in the second quarter, ending the first half 85-73 to the Rockets.

But the Raptors gradually trimmed the deficit, taking the lead in the fourth quarter with the Rockets receiving several fouls down the stretch.

“We have new goals when a new season begins,” Siakam told a news conference. “We challenge ourselves, each of us, every individual on the team.”

The match came after a tweet by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in which he backed anti-government protests in Hong Kong. It led to Chinese sponsors abandoning the team and the state-run TV network cutting them from the airwaves.

Ahead of the game, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the organization would continue to “support freedom of expression and certainly freedom of expression of the NBA community.”

The Raptors last season became the first league champion from outside the United States by dethroning the defending titleholders Golden State in the finals.

But the Raptors now face a tough season after NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard left for the Los Angeles Clippers, after leading Toronto to an NBA crown.

The Houston Rockets won more than 50 games but missed the Western Conference finals after they were defeated by Stephen Curry-led Golden State last season.

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