Individual players can have a long, successful NBA career if they can do nothing but shoot. And from a team perspective, a great shooting night can cover for a lot of mistakes. The Houston Rockets blazed out of the gate with one of their best three-point shooting nights in some time, and one could hope that they would retain a comfortable lead, if not earn a blowout, for the rest of the night like they did against Chicago. But the Bucks hung around, the Houston defense stopped guarding the paint, and Kevin McHale made a curious coaching decision in the fourth quarter. While the Houston Rockets would prevail thanks to their shooting and the offensive genius of James Harden, a good but inferior Bucks team fought hard and made tonight far closer than it realistically should have been.
It was great to remember that Trevor Ariza actually possesses a three point shot as he tied a season-high 24 points and hit 6 three’s tonight, and Houston’s good shooting was not just due to some hot streak. Harden and Josh Smith did a great job at distributing the ball with 5 and 8 assists respectively. There is a great deal I do not like about Josh Smith (such as his inability to finish at the rim), but when he has the ball in a fast break situation, he is a terrifying force of nature who can get the ball to anywhere. Smith also went 4-5 from three-point range, only slightly more than a week since he shot that well against Dallas. It might actually be time to upgrade his shot from “Josh Smith” to just “bad.”
The Rockets used their great three-point shooting and Harden’s slashing to finish the half with a 12 point lead over Milwaukee, but their defense began to blare warning signs in the second quarter. Milwaukee, a team which scores around 43 points in the paint this season, scored 60 tonight. While the Rockets played good perimeter defense against possible All-Star replacement Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, and O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee’s frontcourt of John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo did what they liked. Giannis ended up scoring a career-high 27 points, a great performance by a player who sometimes seems to scream more potential than talent.
As the Rockets kept giving Milwaukee enough dunks, layups, and putbacks to prevent a blowout, the Bucks adjusted their defensive strategy in the second half. Milwaukee guarded Harden more aggressively than I have seen other teams attempt in some time. Like the Bad Boys with Jordan, Milwaukee began to double team Harden from half court. At first, Houston passed the ball through Harden, Smith, and Motiejunas to a wide-open Beverley and Ariza. Houston’s offense declined in the third quarter, but they still managed to extend the lead and enter the fourth quarter with a 14 point lead.
However, things changed at the beginning of the fourth quarter. First, Ariza and Beverley finally stopped hitting their wide-open three point shots – Houston finished the game hitting just one of its final nine attempted three-pointers. Secondly, Kevin McHale for some reason decided to play Motiejunas for just three minutes during the fourth quarter and not at all during the final stretch. Instead, he chose to go with Beverley-Harden-Ariza-Brewer-Smith to round up the game. I have no idea why McHale went with this decision, as Motiejunas had had an excellent game. He finished with 14 points on just 8 shots, and played solid defense protecting the rim. It is possible that since the Bucks had grabbed many offensive rebounds, McHale chose to go with the superior rebounder in Smith. However, without Motiejunas to serve as a secondary offensive option, the offense stagnated and Milwaukee came within five points before Harden made some big plays and time ran out.
None of this is to say that this was a poor victory. Harden had a terrific game. In addition to his offensive execution, he dived down on the floor late in the fourth quarter to grab a loose ball before the Bucks could get to it and called a timeout. Bill Worrell compared to the hustle which bench players throughout the NBA show, and Harden was there before anyone else. The Rockets did enough to win and kept the lead for practically the entirety of the game. Against a good team like Milwaukee? Sometimes, that is all that you need to do – as long as the Rockets can shoot like they did tonight more often.