When last we checked in with the Milwaukee Bucks, they were narrowly losing to the upstart Indiana Pacers on their home turf Monday night. Tonight, they get to face a Houston Rockets team on a back-to-back, but winners of 16 straight.
Milwaukee had lost four straight before their comeback win against Philadelphia. Now, after another loss to Indiana dropped them further down the Eastern Conference standings, they sorely need wins to avoid the latter seeds and ultimately coughing up their pick to the Phoenix Suns this year (Bucks lose it if it’s between 10-16). Milwaukee’s loss to Indiana featured a familiar refrain of late, falling behind by a comfortable margin and hurriedly scoring in an attempt to make up ground. That strategy miraculously worked Sunday, but to no alas Monday. Milwaukee needs Giannis Antetokounmpo to start hitting at least a few jumpers (0-7 vs. Indiana) so he can avoid the punishment he’s gotten of late driving to the hoop. Milwaukee took Houston to the wire back in December, losing 115-111, for what was at the time Houston’s 13th straight win. Harden and Paul scored 56 combined, but that’s to be expected. What isn’t is a 16-point outing by Nene. Those are the kind of anomalies Milwaukee needs to clean up if they want to win.
Player to Watch: Khris Middleton
Khris was just 1-7 against Indiana and looked uncomfortable on a bum knee. He looked passive, but Milwaukee will need him to score in bunches tonight to keep up with Houston. The Moreyball methodology must have entered his brain last time they played too, as he chucked up nine 3-pointers in that December loss. He hit three, not a great percentage, but I wish that thought process went into his play more often. Hopefully his limited mobility means he’s more prone to remain spotted up for kick-outs.
After besting the Oklahoma City Thunder 122-112 last night, the Rockets notched their 16th straight win. By now, everyone knows Houston’s uber-efficient gameplan. Shoot threes and beneath the bucket + get free throws = success. They’ve taken that strategy to the extreme this year, on pace to shoot more threes than twos by year’s end. Their 42.4 3-pointers per game lead the league by over seven attempts on the second-place Nets and they’re also second in the league in free throw attempts per game (26). You can’t bully them on the boards either, they’re third in defensive rebounding percentage (80.6), not that Milwaukee could regardless. The isolation of Harden and Chris Paul at the top of the key before penetrating and rifling to outside shooters will require incredible discipline on Milwaukee’s part. Their best hope is the high variance numbers going the Bucks’ way while also capitalizing on every turnover they force with easy points. Houston also posts a top-ten defense this year, a main reason people have more faith in their potential than year’s past.
Player to Watch: James Harden
James Harden is the leading MVP candidate this year averaging 31 points, 8.9 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game. Whoever is matching him on Milwaukee’s side will have to try and angle him away from the basket so he can’t get cheapies at the rim. Meanwhile, every other Bucks defender has to be on high alert as Harden drives, his floor vision is impeccable, delivering pinpoint passes to shooters dotted all around.