In a battle of the only two left in the MVP race, Giannis and the Bucks took home the win over the Western Conference candidate James Harden and the Rockets, 108-94. The Bucks were without three of their top eight players and were facing a Houston team that had regained Chris Paul since their last meeting together. This game was a potential NBA Finals matchup and the intensity in Milwaukee matched a playoff atmosphere for the nationally televised and highly-anticipated Tuesday night matchup.
Sterling Brown got his first start of the season for the Bucks in just his third game back. He took Tony Snell’s spot who is injured and out indefinitely. This matchup also featured Chris Paul who did not play in the last meeting between these two teams. The first seven shots in the game were misses including four threes. James Harden was the first on the scoreboard with a floater in the lane. On the next possession, Paul hit a three with the foul from Sterling Brown and the Bucks found themselves down six quickly.
Sterling was the first on the board for Milwaukee. He looked like the most amped up for the game and in turn made him look a little sloppy but nevertheless he got the first shot to go. Houston’s starting lineup is relatively undersized compared to Milwaukee, so an undersized PJ Tucker was first to guard Giannis. This looked to be a point of weakness that the Bucks could attack and they did often in the first quarter. However, nothing was clicking and Coach Bud called an early timeout to give the players a reset.
After missing the first four three-point attempts, Brook Lopez was the first Buck to get one go and it was a deep one. The Rockets weren’t doing anything special on offense but Milwaukee just couldn’t string together enough offensive possessions to close the gap through most of the first quarter. The slow pace of the game seemed to be largely due to the high volume of fouls being called on both ends. The first quarter was overall a disaster on offense for Milwaukee but a couple late shots made it much more respectable and the Bucks were down 25-20 after twelve minutes.
A three from Paul to start the second quarter was avenged with an and-1 from Giannis on the other end. Houston continued to make nearly every three point shot they took and it mostly wasn’t Harden or Paul. As soon as a couple threes didn’t fall, Milwaukee found themselves on a 7-0 run. The run was squashed when DJ Wilson was completely crossed over by Chris Paul who promptly hit the three. But the second leader of the team, Eric Bledsoe, wasn’t going to allow another run from the Rockets and stole and inbounds pass to make it a three point game with seven minutes remaining in the half.
Khris Middleton got his first shot to go after missing his first six to get the Bucks back to within one for the first time since the start of the game. With Giannis on the bench, Brook Lopez tied the game up with a deep three followed by a Khris layup to take their first lead with six minutes left. Khris wanted to make up for lost time and splashed a pull up three and the crowd in Fiserv Forum was as load as its been all season. Houston called a timeout to try and slow down the Bucks 11-0 run.
The run did stop for Milwaukee and Houston tied it up from a couple of shots from Iman Shumpert and Clint Capela. That’s when Giannis received an alley-oop from Pat Connaughton and brought the crowd right back in before the half. What was once a double-digit deficit was now a Bucks lead going into the half, 58-53. Giannis was up to 13/8/2 while Harden was held to 10 points on 12 shots and five assists.
James Harden hit the first three attempt of the second half and on the following possession Capela dunked all over Giannis to tie it up. Luckily Brook was there to hit a three to stop the early momentum for Houston. Milwaukee’s defense remained sloppy for the next four minutes and Coach Bud took a timeout to regroup because this was clearly a game they should take over up just two.
Bledsoe continued his huge defensive game with a block on Harden on a layup attempt and it led to a three on the other end for Bledsoe. This was a big swing in third quarter momentum given the domination that Capela was displaying. After Harden missed another layup (and obviously complained about no foul called) Bledsoe hit another corner three to push the lead to eight with seven minutes remaining in the quarter and force another Houston timeout.
Bledsoe was in full Bledshow mode and hit another three out of the timeout followed by a driving layup on two Rockets’ players. The MVP race may have been between Harden and Giannis going into tonight, but Bledsoe seemed the most fit on both ends of the floor. Milwaukee’s lead was up to a game high thirteen points. Harden tried to trim it down with a floater but yet again Bledsoe hit a three. If Bledsoe were to continue on this streak there is nothing any team in the NBA can do to stop the Bucks. In all, he had 16 straight points for Milwaukee.
Harden got to the line for the first time in the game. For a guy who shoots the most free throws in the NBA, this was a big factor in Milwaukee’s defensive strategy. In fact, in the past four seasons Harden has not gone to the line in just a single game. He made it to the line once more in the quarter but a cold shooting quarter from the Rockets and a hot quarter from the Bucks extended the lead to 90-71. Milwaukee outscored Houston 32-18 in the third behind sixteen points from Bledsoe in the quarter.
The Bucks weren’t about to let this one slip away and Ersan started the final period with a tip in to give them the biggest lead of the game. Harden began the quarter on the bench which meant the hope was that the Rockets second unit could get the game to a point that Harden could close the rest of the deficit. Of note, Austin Rivers is a guy who has historically brought Houston back into games and he hit a three early. Still, Houston seemed relatively uninterested in the game and committed some lazy turnovers that are uncharacteristic for one of the top teams in the West.
In what was probably the most energetic moment of the game, Bledsoe blocked yet another Harden floater and yelled in Harden’s face. The game still wasn’t over, though, and Coach Bud called a timeout with seven minutes remaining with the lead back down to sixteen with Giannis on the bench. Giannis was in foul trouble and was expected to sit the majority of the quarter until he’s most needed in the final minutes. Out of the timeout, Bledsoe wasn’t getting good shots and the offense lacked as a whole so Giannis came in with six minutes left.
Three minutes later, each team had added just a handful of points to their totals and another timeout was taken prior to the final stretch of the game, the margin being fifteen. This was the start of the Harden show and he got a layup to go right away. But a foul from Harden on Hill brought the energy back out of the game for Houston and the clock ran out before any real threat could come to fruition, Bucks win 108-94.
Giannis finished with 19/14/4 on 7-15 shooting.
Bledsoe was the team leader with 23/3/7 on 9-19 shooting and 4-7 from deep.
Pat added 14/7/4 on 4-5 from deep to be the spark from the bench. The Bucks had 45%/41% splits on 34 three-point attempts.
James Harden had 23/10/7 on 9-26 shooting and 1-9 from deep. Chris Paul was close behind with 19/9/4 and Capela with 17/11/2 on 8-11 from the field. The Rockets had 36%/31% splits on 52 deep shots.
The battle between the runaway MVP candidates came out in favor of Giannis with the win, although both players had relatively bad nights compared to their averages. Even without Brogdon, Mirotic, and Snell, Milwaukee found enough offense to put away the Rockets by the third quarter. This was mostly due to the real MVP performance from Bledsoe. His combination of timely shooting in the third along with lockdown defense the entire game on Harden was the difference between a close game and a blowout. Ersan and Pat continued to be the spark off the bench in what has been an unexpected stretch from the pair. Khris had a very off night, shooting just 6-23 and 1-8 from deep for 13 points. Being that he is Milwaukee’s second All-Star, it was a huge sign of power in the NBA that they can get it done despite missing three of their top players and their second best scorer having a terrible night. In terms of the MVP race, the only thing I’d like to point out is that Harden had four more points than Giannis seven more shots. If that doesn’t summarize the difference in the players this season, I don’t know what does.
Milwaukee kept their lead in the East at four games with seven games left to play. They are the only team that still has a chance at a 60-win season and need just four more wins to do it. The Bucks also took the season series from the Rockets and put them down to the fourth seed in the West behind the Portland Trail Blazers. The Bucks next game will be Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at Fiserv Forum.