The Rockets look to take their recent strong play on the road as they travel to Milwaukee for the only time this season. The Rockets arrive on the back of a two game win streak that they will be keen to keep going for as long as possible as they take the first trip of their road-heavy January schedule. As recently as a week ago the Bucks were feeling very good about themselves after a comprehensive thrashing of the Heat, but they’ve since been brought down to earth by losses against the Pistons and the Spurs.
This is the first time that the two teams have met since the Bucks made a blockbuster trade at the deadline last year, when they sent former number one pick Andrew Bogut to Golden State in exchange for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh. In the past Houston has really struggled with the length and defensive presence of Bogut (if you cast your minds back, you may recall that his last game for Milwaukee actually came against Houston, when he went down with a fractured ankle), but without him Milwaukee plays very differently. Of course, the same could be said for Houston given the roster turnover in the intervening time.
One of the major criticisms of Scott Skiles’ coaching of the Bucks this year is his unpredictable and fluctuating playing time allocation. With so many big men at his disposal, Skiles has had a tendency to change up his rotation on a game to game basis. Some nights you might see 20 minutes for John Henson, others you might see none and his playing time given to Drew Gooden. Occasionally he might play Udoh instead, or just give more minutes to Ilyasova. This has been frustrating to some Milwaukee fans, who feel that it stunts the growth of their young prospects to have their minutes jerked around so much. To a degree I can understand Skiles’ strategy – he is trying to give his players large blocks of minutes on a given night to get them in rhythm. But it does seem like change for changes’ sake sometimes.
As I alluded to, the Bucks are full to bursting with bigs. They’ll start with Mbah-a-Moute and Sanders manning the front court. Off the bench they can bring any one of Ilyasova, Udoh, Gooden, Henson, Dalembert or Przybilla. So yeah, there are a lot of guys to choose from there, and you’re likely only to see 2-3 of the set of bench players on any given night. Perusing some box scores, it seems that Ilyasova and Udoh will always get at least 10 minutes while Dalembert and Przybilla are semi-permanent benchwarmers. The minutes of Gooden and Henson though are anyone’s guess. It’s a little surprising to see Dalembert glued to the bench after half a season of starting for Houston last year, but by my estimation Sanders provides just about everything he can do except better so perhaps there’s some method to the madness.
Sanders is an exciting young player to watch – he’s got great instincts for timing his blocks, but unlike many shot-swatters (see Ibaka, S) he doesn’t bite and try to block everything. By improving his rebounding this season he has been impossible to keep off the court. Mbah-a-Moute is a defensive specialist who until this year was more of a wing player. He’s been able to do a decent job switching over to guard the 4 position though. Ilyasova has disappointed massively after making a breakthrough last season, during which he performed like a poor man’s Kevin Love. A great battler on the boards and capable of putting up monster rebounding games, he also was able to step outside and shoot the three at a highly impressive 45%. Sadly that’s not held up this year and his rebounding has regressed as well, leaving his numbers down across the board. John Henson has been an exciting young rookie to watch when he’s got minutes – he’s slimly built but is extremely fluid and comfortable taking and making shots on the move.
Of course, the stars of the show as far as Milwaukee are concerned reside in the back court. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are running the show together and should log heavy minutes. Both are ball dominant guards, somewhat reminiscent of Houston’s own starting pairing. Beno Udrih would normally be the backup point guard, but he’s out injured, which leaves the guard rotation very thin. They basically will have to leave one of Ellis and Jennings on the court at all times as they are the only true ballhandlers on the roster. The remaining spot in the starting lineup tends to be filled by Marquis Daniels, for reasons unknown to me (he just doesn’t seem like a starting quality player), but off the bench they can bring Mike Dunleavy, who is an excellent and underrated shooter. Every now and then Skiles will give rookies Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb some minutes, but in his last game he kept the rotation tight – only four players were used in the three back court positions in the entire game against San Antonio.
For Houston there’s only really one area of uncertainty in the now familiar rotation, and that’s the competition between Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson for the starting job at PF. Patterson had an excellent game against New Orleans while Morris struggled, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough for Patterson to be reinstated to the starting lineup. This is a nice problem for McHale to have – the two have slightly contrasting areas of strength that he can pick and choose from depending on who the opposing team puts on the floor. Morris gives slightly more consistent outside shooting and a more perimeter oriented approach, while Patterson will give a bit more inside presence if that’s an area of weakness to exploit. Similarly on defence if it’s more important to have crisp rotations they can go with Patterson, but Morris’ slightly better lateral quickness may prove useful against tweener forwards (although to be honest in situations where that’s important McHale will often turn to Parsons).
The other interesting question is whether we’ll see any of James Anderson on the court any time soon. He may not have had enough time to learn the Rockets’ system yet, but on the other hand McHale might throw him out there for a couple of minutes to see what he can do. Fundamentally though he’s replacing someone who wasn’t in the rotation, so it’s not as though giving him minutes is vital at this stage unless someone comes down with an injury.
Now that Mbah a Moute is being used more as a PF, there really aren’t any noted wing stoppers on the Bucks’ roster. Harden should be able to abuse Marquis Daniels if the two are matched up because Daniels simply isn’t quick enough to stay in front of him. Ellis might have the speed but doesn’t usually put in the effort on the defensive end that he would be able to cause him any problems either. The high-scoring streak that the bearded one has going should be set to continue in this game. The one thing that both he and Lin do need to be a bit careful of is Sanders’ ability to block shots – while from what I’ve seen of him he’s better at erasing attempts from opposing big men than from penetrating guards, his long arms still make him a difficult presence to shoot over.
This will be something of a homecoming game for Carlos Delfino, who played with the Bucks for the past three seasons. Bucks fans are a raucous bunch (Stephen Jackson was treated to boos every time he touched the ball the other night, and serenaded with chants of “Airball” for the rest of the game after he missed badly on a three), but I don’t really know how they view Delfino or his game, so I don’t know how they’ll treat him. Hopefully it will be respectful – he was a big part of the inspired play that drove the ‘Fear the Deer’ campaign of a few years back, after all. Carlos’ performances have varied more than any other player on the team not named Toney Douglas, but this will presumably be quite a big game for him so we’ll see how he handles things. Hopefully it will be more like 22 point 8 assist performance he put up against the Hawks than the 2 point, 2 assist night he had against the Hornets.
Milwaukee are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, securing only 71.4% of their own boards (good for 27th out of 30). Sanders is the only decent rebounder on their starting lineup, so this should be a game where the strong rebounding talents all throughout the Houston roster come to the fore to get them some extra possessions. There should also be plenty of chances for the Rockets to run even though the Bucks are generally good at taking care of the ball, because the the copious quantities of mid-range jumpers the Bucks shoot lead to a lot of long rebounds.
This, to me, is where the game will be decided. In Jennings, Ellis and Dunleavy the Bucks have a trio of some of the most deadly ‘streaky’ shooters in the league. Every now and again they are capable of games where they seem to make every shot, which makes them a very difficult team to predict. Preventing substantial outbursts from these three players will be the key to winning the game.
Jennings and Ellis both suffer from a habit of settling for mid-range shots too often, which contributes to their general inefficiency (this is particularly egregious in Ellis’ case, because he is such an effective and often spectacular finisher around the rim), but they are both lightning quick and have the ability to get to spots on the floor you really don’t want them to. Jennings will often chuck up horrific looking off balance floaters and should be encouraged to do that without giving him too much freedom. Ellis, on the other hand, is an above average shooter from most places on the court, it’s just that he shoots from the wrong spots, so it’s not a good idea to leave him alone. As has been discussed a fair bit recently, Harden’s defence has been a bit suspect since coming to the Rockets, and that might mean Ellis goes for a big game.
Dunleavy is a different animal – he is excellent at using screens and will give whoever is guarding him quite a run around. If you leave him open he’s deadly from three point range (41% this year) but he is willing to put it on the floor a bit if given the opportunity in a similar manner to Parsons. I guess Skiles is playing Dunleavy in the 6th man role in order to provide some offence off the bench – it’s the only reason why you would start Marquis Daniels over him. Daniels is not a very good offensive player and compounds this by using more possessions than he should. He’s good at finishing around the rim but shoots only 30% from outside the immediate vicinity of the basket – not what you want from a wing player, especially since he’s only getting about a third of his shots from in close.
While the majority of the Milwaukee offence is concentrated in its backcourt, there are a few other places they can get points from. Larry Sanders has been developing his offensive game a bit, and looks competent when he gets his touches (he’s still quite a low usage player though). He can make shots from the elbow on occasion and has one or two post moves up his sleeve. You should also expect either Jennings or Ellis to throw a few lobs for him. Ersan Ilyasova will crash the offensive glass with abandon, so he will need plenty of attention when the shots go up. He also likes to take advantage of the distraction caused by the Milwaukee guards to drift out to the three point line, where he needs to be respected even if he can’t replicate his red-hot shooting of last year (38.3% this year after shooting 45.5% in the 2011-2012 season). And if Gooden plays he does have a reasonable midrange jumper, though he also has a tendency to take it far more often than he should.
Harden presents a match-up nightmare for Milwaukee that Houston should be able to exploit to ride to victory. However, they will have to be wary of the threat posed by the Bucks’ numerous streaky shooters. Provided they can prevent the trio of Jennings, Ellis and Dunleavy from catching fire, they should be able to win this fairly comfortably.