After nearly a season’s worth of games, it’s all coming down to this. Well, not all of it, but some of the MVP narrative for members of the voting body will probably, fairly or unfairly, lend utmost importance to this game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. Matt Velazquez penned a solid piece with a straw poll of voters and how the race still seems neck-and-neck at this point. With Houston boasting a markedly different roster from the first time these teams faced off, let’s dive into the breakdown.
This past week featured an odd gamut of games, from Giannis-less wins and losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, punctuated by a weekend sweep over the Miami Heat and Cavs with Giannis back in the fold. Following the god Jeremy Lamb’s buzzer-beating heroics against the Toronto Raptors, the Bucks now hold a four game advantage in the race for the top seed in the East. The Raptors may have the easiest schedule left in the league, but the Bucks could drop both their Western Conference tilts this week and still be in great shape for home court throughout the playoffs. This is also a team on the precipice of 60 wins. Even though it’s a relatively arbitrary number, droves of Bucks fans would assuredly appreciate hitting that stellar plateau. Last time out against Houston, Malcolm Brogdon went 9-12 for 24 points on the evening. Milwaukee will need someone to step up their scoring punch with The President stuck on the sidelines. Along with the usual collection of injuries - Brogdon, Mirotic, Donte and Gasol - Snell will miss the game after injuring his ankle against the Cavaliers.
Player to Watch: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Who else could it be? Never before have the Milwaukee Bucks had a prime MVP candidate playing in front of a national audience this late in the season for a chance to dunk home a punctuation mark in this race with Harden. It’s been two and a half months since the Bucks took down the Rockets with a 116-109 victory in Houston. Giannis posted 27 points, 21 rebounds and five assists, all coming on just 16 shots. It was an excellent encapsulation of this race, with Harden chucking 30 shots to hit 42 points and keep his band of backups in the matchup. Meanwhile, the Bucks spread the wealth with Giannis leading the charge whenever necessary. I doubt he’ll let this moment get the best of him and force the issue, but I’d be fine with him looking for those flashbulb moments whenever possible.
With Chris Paul sidelined part of this season with a hamstring injury, James Harden was given an Atlassian task: carry the Rockets back to contention after a rocky start. He’s done just that, posting one of the highest scoring seasons in NBA history. Perhaps more pertinent to the Rockets actual title hopes, the last 15 games have seen them return to relevance defensively. Over that span, they rank fourth in the league in terms of defensive rating at 106.2. The Bucks rank seventh at 107.4. Paul being back assuredly helps, but they’ve also done a slight overhaul through additions like Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert, neither of whom were on the team during these team’s last matchup. The focus will be on the long ball in this one with the top two teams in term of 3-point attempts squaring off, but whether Houston’s defensive improvement is for real should be a more fascinating test case.
Milwaukee opted to pulverize Houston in the paint last time, outscoring them 70-24 in that aspect, while attempting just 29 threes. The Rockets, meanwhile, went the other way with 48 3-point attempts. Capela is a decent rim protector, but nobody has been a match for Giannis at the rim this season. We’ll see how the teams size one another up tonight, as well as how the Bucks adjust their defensive coverage. Eric Bledsoe strongly shaded Harden to his right, force-feeding him into Brook Lopez’s waiting arms. With Chris Paul in the fold, it may be tougher to play such an exaggerated style. The Rockets aren’t missing anyone of significance either. This is gonna be fun.
Player to Watch: Clint Capela
Whatever, you all know we should actually be watching Harden, but Capela’s inability to finish at the rim against Milwaukee might’ve been what swung that one for the Bucks. He went just 4/16 from the field, and while he got to the line 11 times, there were a couple easy buckets that clanked off the back iron or just rimmed out. His two-man game with both Paul or Harden can be deadly, so Milwaukee’s rim defense will have to be at its best to make sure the Rockets can’t complement their long-range proficiency with a competent inside performance.
Game 75: Against the Rockets the Bucks will
This poll is closed
Win big (by 10 or more points)
Win close (by 9 or fewer points)
Lose close (by 9 or fewer points)
Lose big (by 10 or more points)