It was the same old story down the stretch for the Bucks; a couple costly turnovers during their late-game run and some disappointing execution when the deficit was within one possession in the final minutes doomed their chances of an upset victory. The Bucks have already lost half of the games in a 82-game schedule, but tonight was a rare defeat which felt..okay. The result is still a loss, but the young players performed fairly well, competed admirably, and stuck with a very good Rockets team until the very end. Can't really ask for much more from a rebuilding team, can you?
The Rockets held down the interior with 58 points in the paint, led by Dwight Howard's 27 points and 13 rebounds. The Bucks interior defense wasn't the revolving door it was in the first match-up with Houston, but with only three available bigs after Larry Sanders left the game (blurred vision--more on that in a minute), there just wasn't enough ammo to keep throwing fresh bodies at Howard and company. Howard was aided by 21 points from James Harden, 18 points from Jeremy Lin, and a sneaky 15 points from Patrick Beverley. The supporting cast around Howard was also pesky on defense, getting out in passing lanes and tallying 11 steals, which played a decent part in the Rockets 19 fast break points.
Larry Sanders left the game with 7:37 left in the first quarter after he took a blow to the head from James Harden's elbow (putting the Sanders/Henson starting front court minute total at a whopping four). It was speculated that Sanders would be able to return in the second half, but consistent blurry vision wasn't worth risking any future incidents. With Sanders out, another big would have to pick up some slack, and John Henson (14p/10r) and Zaza Pachulia (12p/10r) did, at least statistically speaking. Henson however had difficulty making swift moves to the basket all night, and when he did have a lane, struggled to secure the ball before making the move. Pachulia was outmatched skill wise all night, but made a couple of nice plays out of the high post, where it seems like he should be planted for all of the future Bucks offensive sets forever and ever.
On a much brighter note, two of the young guys had career highs. Khris Middleton had a career-best eight assists to go along with 20 points on 7-13 shooting and three made triples in five attempts. Nate Wolters perhaps played his best game of the year, dropping in 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists on 9-15 shooting. Nate still makes folks go mad when he passes up nice looks to dish the ball away to someone less likely to take a good look (I won't mention Gary Neal's name in this space), but I can't argue against a career scoring night, especially for a shoot-second point guard. The down side was an ugly 0/8 line from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who for all his aggressiveness just could not get anything to go down.
Brandon Knight also chimed in with 23p/5a on 10-20 shooting, but looked either overwhelmed or undisciplined on defense most of the night. Knight would constantly be helping off of his point guard assignment to go double Dwight or someone else in the post, after which Dwight would kick the ball out to said open guard for a wide open three that usually went in. That's also a tactical issue from the coaching staff, though the problem went away for the most part when Wolters was switched on to the ball-handler in the second half. Either way, the mental lapses (whether on defense or turning the ball over on important possessions on offense) continue to inhibit Knight from stringing together solid performances.
This was the first game of a six game homestand for the Bucks, getting split halfway through by the All-Star break. It'll be interesting to see if the Bucks can start putting together a few competitive performances in a row now that they have a long stretch in one part of the country. And with the trade deadline now 11 days away, it'll be even more interesting to see who is around for the end of the homestand on the 22nd against the Indiana Pacers.