After impressively comfortable wins in Charlotte and Miami, the Bucks put up a good fight in Houston but ultimately saw their three-game overall win streak snapped at the hands of James Harden (33 pts on 15 shots) and a trigger-happy Rockets team that shot 15/44 from three. While you normally don't expect the Bucks to go into a place like Houston and steal a road win, it felt like a rather reasonable possibility given Houston's raft of injuries (Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, and Donatas Motiejunas were among the absentees) and generally underwhelming play this season.
Alas, conceding too many good looks at threes (and 10/19 shooting from Harden and Trevor Ariza) ultimately proved the Bucks' undoing, though it was encouraging to see them battle back from multiple double-digit deficits to make it a game down the stretch. New Orleans native Greg Monroe's 21 points, nine boards and four blocks (!) led Milwaukee, while Khris Middleton battled through a relative off night (1/7 threes, four turnovers) to also score 21 with seven assists. If that's a bad night from Middleton, I can live with it. Giannis added 18 on 12 shots while Jabari Parker had a relatively nice all-around game with 11 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals.
Pelicans Scouting Report
Injuries, terrible defense and an inconsistent offensive attack have doomed a season full of promise in New Orleans, though that doesn't mean the Bucks can expect an easy time of it on Saturday. While a 1-11 start was always going to make the playoffs appear a rather tall order for the Pelicans, New Orleans has won four of five including three straight at home (over Charlotte, Minnesota, and Detroit), inching them up to 12th in the West and within four games of the 8th seed.
The Pellies remain weakened on the wing with Eric Gordon (finger) and Quincy Pondexter (knee) out with long-term injuries and Dante Cunningham (illness) not expected to play tonight. Still, they do have the NBA's ultimate trump card in Anthony Davis. Unfortunately for Alvin Gentry and company it's been a somewhat underwhelming season for the Brow, as his efficiency metrics have universally regressed rather substantially from his historically incredible 14/15 season: his PER is down to an almost-mortal 24.9 from last year's league-leading 30.8, his WS/48 is the same as in his rookie year (0.160 vs. .270 last year) and his RPM is actually slightly worse than Greg Monroe's (+3.19 to +2.95). Still, let's not get too focused on the negative -- at the tender age of 22, Davis is still the league's single most valuable asset and still liable to be completely unstoppable on any given night.
With Davis starting alongside Omer Asik (for now), we're likely to see Giannis Antetokounmpo and Davis duking it out to start the game in a matchup of two of the league's most exciting (and freakish) young players. Davis averaged 31.5 ppg and 11.0 rebounds on 56% shooting against the Bucks last season, while Giannis held his own with 22.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 68% shooting.
Perhaps more intriguing will be when Gentry goes small(er) with Davis at center and the floor-stretching Ryan Anderson off the bench at the four. Monroe is obviously an awkward defensive matchup for the much quicker Davis, and Asik is only a token starter -- despite starting 31 games, he's only averaged 17 minutes per night this season. New Orleans is a middle-of-the-pack three point shooting team overall, but with Anderson replacing Asik that dynamic changes dramatically.
The Pelicans also have the luxury of bringing Jrue Holiday off the bench, an artifact of the chronic leg injury that limited Holiday's minutes in the first half of the season. The good news is that Holiday has played well when healthy and has seen his minutes bumped up over the past month (15.6 ppg, 6.5 apg, 1.9 to in 29 mpg in January, albeit on 42% shooting overall and 28% from deep), though he hasn't cracked 30 minutes in any of the past six games. Still, it's not clear that Gentry is making the most of his lineup options thus far. While injuries explain some of it, Tyreke Evans, Holiday and Davis have been just the 36th most common trio used this season, piling up a +23.8 net rating in 156 minutes.
Despite an improved stretch that's seen them win seven of their last 12 overall, the Bucks remain rooted in 13th place in the East and 4.5 games out of the 8th spot. Aside from their own improved play, the best news for the Bucks' playoff hopes might be the increasing struggles of some of the teams ahead of them: the Heat and Hornets are limping through injuries and poor play, the Magic have lost nine of ten, and the Celtics and Wizards still haven't found the consistency many expected. Still that underscores the Bucks' fundamental problem: they have to pass ALL of them in order to have a realistic shot at the postseason.
On the flip side, the Bucks remain tied with Portland for 8th in the lottery standings, just 2.5 games adrift of the 5th seeded Pelicans -- a gap that would shrink further if the Bucks are unable to take care of business tonight.