Bucks vs. Rockets Preview | Milwaukee takes losing streak on the road

Maddie Meyer

The Bucks have lost seven straight and no one seems happy about it. Their reward? A weekend back-to-back in Houston and San Antonio, starting Saturday night against James Harden, Dwight Howard and the Rockets. You're welcome!

2013/14 NBA Season
Hou
(26-15, 15-6 home)
vs.
Mil_medium
(7-31, 4-16 home)
January 18, 2014
Toyota Center | Houston, TX
7:00 CT
Fox Sports Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Jeremy Lin PG Brandon Knight
James Harden SG Khris Middleton
Chandler Parsons SF Giannis Antetokounmpo
Terrence Jones PF Ersan Ilyasova
Dwight Howard C Larry Sanders
2013/14 Advanced Stats
95.6 (8th) Pace 91.1 (27th)
108.9 (6th) ORtg 98.3 (30th)
105.6 (14th) DRtg 107.7 (22nd)

On the Rockets: The Dream ShakeUltimate Rockets | Clutch Fans

Rockets update. Houston returned home on Thursday to have its three game winning streak snapped by Kevin Durant and company 104-92, dropping Houston to 26-15 and the fifth spot out West. It was a "tale of two halves" story if there ever was one, as the Rockets led 73-59 at the half only to shoot 19% and score a meager 19 (!) points in the entire second half. The 54-point differential between halves was the largest in NBA history, so yeah, the Rockets should have some motivation to get things together tonight.

The Dwightmare is over. A year ago, Dwight Howard was not in a good place, and to be clear that's not meant as a dig against the city of Los Angeles. A bad back, underwhelming play (by his standards), ego clashing with Kobe Bryant, and questions over his future hung over the league's best big man like a cloud, making his decision to spurn the Lakers and join Daryl Morey's up-and-coming Rockets team all the more understandable.

And so far, so good. Howard hasn't missed a game, his numbers are up modestly and the Rockets are mostly living up to expectations. Still, for as bad as things were supposed to be for Dwight in Los Angeles, you'd expect he still has room for improvement  While any team would love to have a center dropping 17.9 ppg, 12.5 rpg and blocking nearly two shots a game, Howard's efficiency numbers are still clearly below the monstrous standards he set in Orlando from 2007 to 2012. Maybe that's nitpicking, but for the Rockets to jump from "damn good" to "title contender" they'll need to get everything they can get from the guy they're paying $88 million over the next four seasons.

Charted territory. Why are the Rockets a top ten team offensively? Well, talent would be the most obvious answer: a premier scorer like James Harden plus a dominant interior scorer is a good place for any offense to start, which on its own makes their third-ranked eFG% and league-leading free throw rate understandable. But anyone familiar with analytic trends in NBA shot selection also know that the Rockets aren't like every other team in terms of shot selection either. In fact, they're unlike every other team in one major way. It's well known that long two-point shots have the lowest expected value of any shot, and as a result the Rockets just...well, they don't take them. They attempt just 5.1 shots per game from 16-24 feet, while every other team takes between 10 and 20. And they attempt just 6.4 shots per game from 8-16 feet, while every other team shoots between 8 and 16 times from that range.

Contrast that to the Bucks, who are slightly above the NBA average with 12.1 shots per game from 8-16 feet (converting 35.4%) and 16.4 shots from 16-24 feet (converting 37.7%). Note that both of the Bucks' efficiencies within those ranges are better than the Rockets', but the point is that they're not shots that anyone is going to make a living on. Eschewing low-percentage twos allows Houston to shoot five more threes per game than the Bucks (25.5 to 20.5) and eight more shots inside eight feet (41.3 to 33.4), numbers that place the Rockets third in both categories while the Bucks rank 15th and 18th, respectively.

It's not to say that the Bucks can just snap their fingers and become a top-ten offense by changing their shot selection; Harden and Howard are talented enough that they can get where they want on the floor and create the sort of gravitational pull on defenders that makes it much easier to also get others hots where you want them. The Bucks simply don't have those kinds of players, which is why Houston leads the league in free throw rate and are far more efficient inside eight feet (58% to Milwaukee's poor 50%) despite shooting more often. But I also can't recall hearing Larry Drew say he was trying to root out mid-range shots from the Bucks' arsenal, or that they desperately need to shoot more threes--which based on their personnel would seem like obvious ambitions. In contrast, Drew said recently he wanted Giannis Antetokounmpo developing his midrange game as a weapon to keep defenses off-balance and enable Giannis to also get to the rim more often. It's not without its logic, but years of data say that the Bucks more generally seem to be going about things the wrong way, and the Bucks' 30th ranked offense would seem to agree.

Supporting cast. While Howard and Harden understandably take the headlines, Morey's drafting acumen has put Houston in an enviable position at the forward spots, too. Second-year man (and Brew Hoop favorite) Terrence Jones' emergence at power forward (11.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 27 mpg, 18.0 PER) has quieted talk of the Rockets needing an Ersan Ilyasova-type floor stretcher to complement Howard, while Chandler Parsons remains arguably the league's best bargain. Parsons puts up very efficient points (17.0 ppg, 59.5% true shooting) while adding 5.5 rpg and 3.6 apg--and the Rockets will owe him just over $900k each of the next two seasons.

It's not a return to Linsanity, but Jeremy Lin has most certainly found a better rhythm in his second year as a Rocket. Lin was nominally demoted to a sixth man role early in the season, but he had been playing well in that role up until Beverley's broken hand forced Lin back into the starting five. His numbers have settled down a bit since an excellent month of November, but he's been productive both off the bench (13.1 ppg, 3.6 apg, 27 mpg, 61.3% true shooting) and as a starter (14.2 ppg, 4.6 apg, 58.7% TS).

In terms of matchups: I'm not sure how the Bucks can handle the size of Lin/Harden while playing Luke Ridnour alongside Brandon Knight, and Bucks.com's preview also shows Khris Middleton starting. So let's assume Larry Drew does the rational thing and rolls with a Middleton/Giannis wing combo.

Locker room rumblings. Winning tends to keep people happy; losing not so much. So it's not surprising that Caron Butler has decidedly mixed emotions about his homecoming so far.

"I knew it was going to be a process to win, but me as a basketball player and as a competitor, the information I received before coming here was, 'You are going to play a lot,'" Butler said after practice Thursday. "And I want to play. I want to be out there to help the situation. If we are developing on the fly -- and I know Giannis has to play, guys have to play -- but there are a lot of ways those guys can play and we still can be out there and developing those guys as well.

"Coach understands that. I've talked to him. He's been more than helpful. Mr. Hammond and everyone. I know it's process and we'll get through it. There's a lot of season to go. Hopefully something turns for the better for the team and particularly for myself."

We'll have more on this over the weekend, but the bottom line is that these are the sorts of things that happen when you're the worst team in the league. Without a winning core in place, unproductive veterans will feel less bashful about complaining over minutes, though Butler's situation is a bit trickier since he's also a local-boy-makes-good story and being relied on to mentor youngsters like Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

Guys like Butler and Gary Neal may have thought they would have larger roles, and to the extent that the front office made playing time guarantees...well, that's on them. But guys like Butler also need to realize that a) they haven't been good basketball players and b) they're incidental to the Bucks' long-term competitiveness anyway. The more interesting angle is Larry Drew's "don't blame me" comment about it:

"I think right now there's a level of commitment to certain players as far as playing time. For any of the guys, if they are not happy with their playing time, they are going to have to contact our front office, John Hammond and those guys, and talk to them about it.

"If there's unhappiness there, I guess they are going to have to do something."

So basically, if you don't like your minutes go complain to the front office. The frightening part is that it almost seems to imply Drew thinks big minutes from Butler might help them win games. You know the Caron Butler who's putting up 46.3% true shooting and has a negative win shares/48 rating.

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