Going in to the game Wednesday night the Houston Rockets had the NBA’s best record against winning teams at 13-6. The Milwaukee Bucks, their opponent, had the league’s second best mark at 10-6. The game was hyped as a match up of the league’s two leading candidates for MVP, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they lived up to the billing, scoring 42 and 27 points respectively.
The deciding factor in the game, however, may have been Milwaukee’s extreme defensive strategy. Wherever the Beard went, one Buck or another was glued to his rear, usually caressing his left butt cheek, guiding him gently towards the paint and seven foot center Brook Lopez. While often Harden was able to use the driving lane provided to hit floaters or find shooters on the perimeter, Milwaukee succeeded in taking away vital parts of Houston’s offense. First, because Harden didn’t need to force a switch or come off a screen to get inside, Clint Capela was mostly stationary on offense, and without the space or momentum to play above the rim, the taller Brook Lopez, relieved not to have to chase Capela around the perimeter, was able to shut him down on the inside, holding Capela to 4 of 16 shooting and blocking him several times. Second, by taking away Houston’s paint game the Bucks were able to anticipate Harden’s decisions, taking a couple charges and intercepting several passes meant for corner shooters. Harden had 9 turnovers on the day. Finally, by keeping Harden’s substantial rear between them and the ball, the Bucks’ guards defending him weren’t able to give in to their pressing desire to reach in and foul Harden, at least not as easily as they normally would have been able to.
On the other end, the Rockets had early success feinting help defenders at Giannis when he drove, forcing him to pull up and play out of the post. In the second half Milwaukee began running weak-side actions behind the feints, complicating Houston’s defensive scheme and allowing the Greek Freak and others to attack the rim.
Still, after a disastrous start to the fourth quarter where the Rockets couldn’t score a field goal for over five minutes of game-time and fell behind by double digits, Houston cut the Bucks’ lead to three and got Harden multiple looks to tie the game. Any other game during this historic streak and Harden would have brought them all the way back, but tonight both of his potential game-tying threes hit back rim and bounced out.
Houston lost 116-109 and fell to 23-17 on the season. The Rockets play Milwaukee again March 26thin Wisconsin where I expect we’ll see a lot of PJ Tucker at the five.