The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t a very good basketball team. At 9-40 heading into tonight’s matchup with the Houston Rockets, they laid claim to the worst record in the NBA, and in the anemic Eastern Conference, no less. It’s possible that there’s a worse team in the league, and that’s a fairly charitable thing to say. With Ömer Aşık returning to action in Milwaukee, with the Rockets on a four game winning streak, with the team playing better than it has in a long while, it should come as no surprise that the Rockets very nearly lost the game. When inconsistency is the only constant, sometimes a win is just a win. After week-long period in which the Rockets only played one game, sometimes there’s some rust. And after a two-month-long injury, sometimes a player like Ömer Aşık has some rust of his own.
So, what of Ömer? How did he fare in his first game back? The answer is largely that he barely played. He saw the floor for eleven minutes, matching the time when Dwight Howard rested. He attempted no shots in that time, grabbed five boards and picked up two assists. He also changed a few shots, but that was mostly during his second six-minute stint. He looked a little slow and a little ungainly, even by his standards. Aşık seemed to get more comfortable as he played, but is clearly not exactly in game shape and will take a little while to get back up to twenty or so minutes per game. It was far from his best performance, but it was also a surprisingly hard job with the aggression of Zaza Pachulia and Nate Wolters. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s worthy of a sigh of relief. There’s a backup center again.
Dwight Howard absolutely took over the game, and his post play has only been improving. He continues to dominate opposing big men down low, this time going for 27 points on 11-19 shooting. Nobody could stop him except for himself, and he was quick to attack mismatches down low. His rebound game was solid as ever, with him pulling down 13 of them. The team suffered on the offensive side, however, with the Bucks outdoing the Rockets 14-6 on the offensive glass. In fact, if there’s one reason the game was closer than 10 points, that’s the prime candidate. Milwaukee got plenty of second chances, but Dwight wasn’t the one giving them up. It’s hard to have many qualms with his game, at this point.
James Harden, however, didn’t look quite as good. It’s as if his shooting efficiency is controlled by a pendulum, swinging back and forth every other game. After some quality play against Phoenix, Harden couldn’t buy a foul call in Milwaukee. He shot a paltry 4 shots from the line, and this went along with a poor night overall for him. He scored 22 points, missed 8 of his 9 three point attempts, but went 8-12 otherwise. His peripherals were similarly up and down, with 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 turnovers but 4 steals. Harden has earned a few passes on the offensive end, however, and given how laid back the Rockets looked for much of the game, there’s not really much to take away there.
The point guards, however, looked as good as ever. The chronically overworking Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin went full speed and picked up two very nice lines. Beverley played 30 minutes, in which he shot 50% from the field, scored 15 points, had 3 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, 3 blocks (!) and no turnovers. That steal was also particularly noteworthy, as it was another of his patented “literally take the ball out of his hands” steals. Lin, for his part, played for 28 minutes and looked aggressive throughout. He shot 8-15, had 18 points. 4 assists and 2 steals. His 2 turnovers was a good number for him, especially given how often he attacked the rim.
Hopefully, the center position will come to resemble the point guard situation. While Beverley and Lin may not be world-beaters, both of them are able to play for limited minutes and increase their efficacy. Both are always fresh, and if head coach Kevin McHale wanted to, he could drop Aaron Brooks into the mix to further rest the two. With Ömer Aşık back, Both he and Dwight Howard should be able to stay fresh and aggressive on both sides of the court with Houston dropping only slightly in overall performance when Dwight sits down. Once Greg Smith returns to the rotation, he should be able to play the same role as Brooks.
There’s not a lot to take away from a game where the Rockets look groggy and just starting to get back on track. They won, they got back Ömer Aşık and Donatas Motiejunas hit 4-5 shots. The streak has extended to five games, and the Rockets now have a day to get to Minneapolis to face the Timberwolves on Monday. That matchup should be a lot more meaningful and a lot more informative than an early vacation day before the All-Star break.