So coming into tonight, the media and Twitterati seemed certain that this game would not only tip the MVP race, it might even crown the winner. The Beard and Giannis would battle, head to head, two men enter, one man leaves. In actuality, Eric Bledsoe was the best player on the floor for most of the game, and neither Giannis or Harden had impressive games by their lofty standards. Nonetheless, portions of this game were tensely contested, and if I can sign up for seven games of this in June, somebody get me a pen (obviously this would mean the Rockets swept the Warriors after Draymond tried to redeem his honor by challenging Harden to fisticuffs during warm ups).
Antetokounmpo went for 19 PTS and 14 REBs in a sort of . . . meh showing. There were spin moves and dunks and open-for-a-reason three point clank jobs. He drew PJ Tucker as his primary defender, and Tuck did solid work. Harden also defended Giannis a couple times in the post, where Harden’s poke checks and oak tree of a lower body continued to stun the uninformed fan. Say it with me: “James Harden is good post defender.” Most of Giannis’s damage was done on short downhill drives with spin moves followed by dunks. He seems to have blossomed into something like LSU’s young, lean Shaq. There is a power there reminiscent of Shaq’s battering ram post game.
Harden scored an inefficient 23 points on 26 shots with 10 rebounds and 7 assists. Defensively, the Bucks played an impressive game. Similar to their previous match up, the Bucks gave Harden the lane and dropped back to protect the rim. Bledsoe (and sometimes a less successful George Hill) parked on Harden’s left hip, atop his shooting hand, and gave him free run at the lane. Harden took it, and drove the lane for floater after floater. Unfortunately, as we Rockets’ faithful know well, two is less than three, and the Buck’s plan seemed to work swimmingly.
Perhaps that is the only MVP argument that can be gleaned from this game where the supporting casts determined the outcome: Giannis’ all-world skill (dunking on your whole family tree) cannot be taken away, and Harden’s (step back threes that siphon your soul from your body) maybe can? Of course, Harden’s 7 assists could very well have been 15 or 20 had Rockets’ shooters knocked down open looks. Harden was cold from three, obviously bothered by the Bucks’ scheme, but PJ, Eric Gordon, and The Beard went a combined 2 for 23 from three. Danuel House shot it well from beyond the stripe (5-9), and others contributed one or two threes, but the Rockets shot just 30 percent from 3 on 51 attempts. Between that and the Bucks incredible defensive discipline that led to only 7 Rocket’s free throws in the entire game, it’s a wonder the Rockets only lost by 14.
The Eye Test
Chris Paul looked spry. He had 19 PTS, 9 REBs, and 4 ASTs as well as an otherwordly crossover on DJ Wilson (sneaky underrated celebration from Danuel House Jr. here). But his in game presence was not as encouraging as a single cut away shot of the bench as he and Harden sat for garbage time in the fourth. He and Harden were miming the defensive coverage from the Bucks, taking about how to best attack it and get your shot up against someone who is sitting on your shooting hand.
Chris Paul is not washed. He is still good. But even when he ages well past his prime, his basketball IQ, locker room presence, coupled with the respect he has with other superstars, allows him to workshop moves and game plans in ways that even coaches cannot always pull off. In that cut away, we saw our two stars working out the kinks on this Milwaukee match up. They seemed convinced that we will see them again.