HOUSTON -- The Toyota Center crowd welcomed Carmelo Anthony with a loud ovation when he checked into the season opener with 7:12 remaining in the first quarter -- the first time that the 10-time All-Star had come off the bench during his NBA career.
The home crowd didn't have too many other opportunities to cheer on the Rockets, as the New Orleans Pelicans rolled to a 131-112 rout Wednesday night in one of Houston's worst defensive performances in recent memory.
It was the most points the Rockets had given up in a regulation game during coach Mike D'Antoni's tenure, as Houston last allowed an opponent to score that many points in 48 minutes in a Jan. 17, 2015 loss to the Golden State Warriors, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The margin of defeat was more lopsided than any Houston loss last season, when the Rockets had the NBA's best record at 65-17.
The Rockets ranked sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season, but Houston lost stoppers Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency and associate head coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik to retirement the week before training camp started.
"We know that we are one of the top offensive teams, but we want to mirror that with our defense," Anthony said. "Tonight wasn't an indication of that, but we'll get better. There were some small things that didn't go our way or we didn't do tonight. We didn't communicate enough on the defensive end. We wasn't talking. We wasn't a unit out there defensively tonight. That's something we can learn from."
Anthony, who had an underwhelming offensive performance with nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, said there would be a "learning curve" as he adjusts to a bench role after starting the first 1,054 games of his career. Only Patrick Ewing (1,118 games) had more consecutive starts to begin an NBA career since 1970-71, when starters were first tracked, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The early returns were encouraging for Anthony, whose first field goal attempt was an off-dribble jumper just inside the 3-point arc, which is typically the kind of shot that D'Antoni discourages. Anthony made a 3 in transition off an assist from James Harden on the next possession. He got another transition bucket in the first minute of the second quarter, dunking off a feed from Chris Paul after hustling down the court and getting position on his defender.
But Anthony, who had never before been held to single digits in a season opener, missed his final six shots. He said his new role as a reserve isn't an excuse for not getting in a rhythm, but Anthony acknowledged that it's a formidable transition.
"It's challenging mentally more so than anything, having to prepare for the game differently," Anthony said. "Other than that, it's a challenge all the way around. It's just a matter of how I'm going to react to that challenge and accepting that challenge, which I am, which I will do.
"For me, at this point, it's more about what I have to do for the sake of the team, instead of trying to just go out there and do whatever or trying to have a specific role. Every night will be different; but for the most part, it is a challenge, but it's something that I'll get used to quick."
Anthony informed the Rockets that he was open to whatever role the coaching staff determined was best when he signed a veteran's minimum deal in July after receiving a buyout from the Atlanta Hawks, who acquired him from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a financially motivated trade.
Anthony, 34, is coming off the worst statistical season of his 15-year career. He posted career lows in scoring (16.2 points per game) and field goal percentage (.404) with the Thunder, saying after the season that he struggled to get comfortable with an unfamiliar role.
D'Antoni, who clashed with Anthony about offensive philosophy during their brief time together with the New York Knicks but has long since buried the hatchet, expressed appreciation for the forward's willingness to accept a reserve role. D'Antoni used Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, who helped the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers win two titles as a reserve, as an example of his hopes for Anthony.
"I know it's not the ideal situation for him, because he's a Hall of Famer and all that," D'Antoni said of Anthony before Wednesday's contest. "I know it's a big adjustment, but you know what? He's true to his word. He said he'd do anything for the team. We think that's best today. It might not be best later -- we don't know -- but having him is something that we didn't have last year. Obviously, it's really good.
"I know it's tough. We appreciate him doing it and trying to help us win a championship."
For the Rockets to contend again, their dreadful defensive performance against the Pelicans needs to be an aberration.
Houston was particularly helpless against the Pelicans' three-man center/power forward rotation, as Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle combined to score 87 points on 33-of-56 shooting.
Davis, a perennial All-NBA performer determined to back up his claims that he is the NBA's best player, was absolutely dominant. He led the Pelicans with 32 points, 16 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals, and he dished out a career-high 8 assists. Half of Davis' dimes went to Mirotic, who scored 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting, including 6-of-8 from 3-point range.
"Obviously, the strength of our team is our big guys, and I thought we did a really good job of getting the ball inside," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "Then I thought our big guys were really patient waiting for the double-teams to come and making the right decisions."
D'Antoni said the Rockets made the wrong decisions to double Davis several times, allowing the superstar to bait them into bad rotations.
"It happens when you get tired," D'Antoni said. "It happens when you panic a little and they want to overdo it. When I say we don't have energy, it's not that we don't want to have it. It's just that first game, our legs got dead. You know, tiredness makes cowards out of everybody, and we were tired. It just was tough. We'll fight through it, we'll get our sea legs and we'll get going."