Game Day: Rockets at Bucks
Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 101-95 win over the Bucks
HOUSTON - The Milwaukee Bucks came into tonight’s game a beaten, bruised and nearly broken basketball team due to a toxic combination of injuries and underperforming personnel that have banished them to an ignominious spot in the deepest, darkest recesses of the NBA cellar. They have been a down on their luck, down-and-out bunch all season long. And when starting center Larry Sanders left the game for good with an eye injury just four minutes in, it looked like the Bucks were in for more of the same.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Houston’s seemingly inevitable and ultimately harrowing fifth straight victory: Milwaukee made shots and, more tellingly, made the Rockets put in a full 48 minutes of work to earn the win. Several times Houston threatened to turn the contest into the runaway many expected, and in every single instance the 9-41 Bucks responded with a rally that forced the Rockets to mind their Ps and Qs.
A masterpiece this was not. When the Rockets are assembling their application for title contention, tonight’s contest won’t be placed anywhere near the top of their list of achievements. But sometimes simply emerging victorious is accomplishment enough for one evening. Don't believe it? Then just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder for their thoughts on the subject after seeing 15-37 Orlando knock them off in buzzer-beating fashion last night.
From that vantage point, Houston’s 101-95 decision Saturday evening over the woebegone Bucks looks positively golden. No, the Rockets won’t be blind to the numerous areas of improvement that will likely leap off the screens of their iPads as they review game film on the flight to Minneapolis tonight. But neither will they balk at what it means to chalk up another win while fighting tooth and nail for playoff positioning in the brutally competitive upper echelon of the Western Conference.
“I’m just glad we got that win,” said a relieved Kevin McHale after the game. “That was not our best game; we had a lot of possessions offensively where we didn’t move the ball and defensively they kind of got what they wanted there for a while. But we had some good stops and some good runs inside the game to get some separation.
“For us it was good to get the win and move on. It wasn’t a great game but we’ll take the win, definitely.”
- Dwight Howard picked up right where he left off during his dominating performance against Phoenix Wednesday night. He scored via a post-up on Houston’s first possession and though he had several shots rattle in-and-out in the first half, his powerful movements, foot work and decision-making from the low block were on point throughout most of the evening. He was especially potent while picking out his open teammates when the Bucks sent a double-team his way, as seen by the fact he finished the game as the team leader in assists with five (Howard’s career-high in that category, by the way, is seven and the last time he reached that mark was in Milwaukee in 2009).
- One of the big beneficiaries of those passes in the early going: none other than Patrick Beverley, who needed fewer than six minutes to knock down three 3s on his way to scoring 11 points, although none of those bombs was more impressive than the remarkable put-back Houston’s 6-1 point guard pulled off during that scorching stretch.
To put Beverley’s scoring spree into perspective, consider this: The 25-year-old came into the game with 19 points representing his career-high for scoring in a single game while his career-best for 3s in a contest was five. In less than six minutes, he was more than halfway to surpassing each of those marks. Beverley went on to finish the game with 15 points and three, yes three, blocked shots.
- Omer Asik made his much anticipated return tonight at the 2:41 mark of the first quarter, after having missed the last 31 games due to a thigh injury that caused swelling above his knee. Conditioning was obviously an issue as the Turkish national was clearly gassed when he checked out of the contest about 90 seconds into the second period. But true to both form and reputation, Asik hauled in five rebounds during his 11 minutes of action, and set some of the best, most physically imposing picks you’ll see. His presence alone fills a major void on this Rockets’ roster, and tonight represented a solid first step in his re-acclimation to live action.
“I liked (what Asik did),” said McHale. “He got tired, but that’s going to happen. We’ll try to hopefully build his stamina and timing as we go.”
- It was another one of those wildly productive nights for Houston’s one-two punch at the point guard position. While Beverley got his club off on the right foot with his shooting and ubiquitous energy on both ends of the court, Jeremy Lin came off the bench and lit up the Bucks while pouring in 18 points to go along with four assists and two steals.
Lin is always a handful for defenders thanks to his ability to wreak havoc with his slashing, penetrating style of play but he becomes an exceptionally tough cover when he’s able to pair that drive-and-kick game with an effective perimeter jumper. His shot was all kinds of wet during his first 20 minutes of action when he splashed in one jumper after another while connecting on eight of his first 10 shots from the field. And though Lin’s last five field goal attempts missed the mark, his early work played a significant role in the Rockets’ ability to build a cushion that was just big enough to allow them to stave off Milwaukee’s comeback attempt.
Oh, and not to be forgotten (or missed): J-Lin’s positively gorgeous alley-oop dish to Howard in the fourth quarter. For one fleeting moment, it appeared as if Lin was harmlessly wandering away from the basket. Next thing you know, he was firing off a picture perfect pass that Howard hammered home.
- It’s inevitable that many might be of a mind to criticize the Rockets for not doing a better job of putting the Bucks away when they had the chance. And to be sure, Houston’s generosity on the offensive glass and inability to dominate Milwaukee at the free throw line certainly contributed to this game being closer than expected. But give the Bucks credit – they played really well and never came close to conceding anything despite being presented countless ready-made opportunities to do so. Nate Wolters, John Henson, Brandon Knight, Zaza Pachulia and Khris Middleton all made big plays and big shots that kept Milwaukee within striking distance.
The fourth quarter epitomized the game’s rhythm and flow as the Rockets began the final frame up 12, saw the Bucks cut their deficit to six, only for Houston to extend its advantage to 11 on a James Harden fast break flush with 3:46 remaining. Once more, it looked like the Rockets were ready to put an end to the proceedings. But once more, Milwaukee responded with a run of its own to make things interesting. A 10-2 Bucks blitz brought them within three, and for a moment it even appeared they were going to get a chance to tie things up in the final minute when Knight cut to the basket, drew contact, and looked for all the world like he was going to get his runner to fall. Instead, however, no foul was called, his shot rimmed out, Dwight Howard corralled the loose ball and then hit a few freebies in the final 10 seconds to put Milwaukee on ice.
- The last word belongs to Howard, who scored 11 of his game-high 27 points in the final period, putting the finishing touches on another monster night that included 13 boards, fives dimes and two blocked shots. But again, more than the numbers – and that’s obviously saying something – was the rock-solid decision-making and supreme confidence he showed while operating as a low-post playmaker for both himself and his teammates. No, neither the Suns nor the Bucks possess the beef to consistently or suitably handle Howard. But in both games, whether he was going one-on-one against his man or forced to make quick, quality decisions against double-teams, the eight-time All-Star passed each test with flying colors.
- With the win, the Rockets improve to 34-17, moving into a tie once again with the Los Angeles Clippers for the fourth-best record in the West while remaining just two games back of the Blazers. Next up for Houston: a date with Minnesota on Monday. Take note: the Timberwolves played without Kevin Love (quad contusion) and Kevin Martin (thumb) tonight during their loss to Portland. Martin will almost certainly be out Monday night. It's too early to know what Love's status will be, however.
(On winning ugly…)
“We missed a couple of shots and then we fouled the 3-point shooter. They dug into the lead a little bit. I’m just glad we got that win. That was not our best game. We had a lot of possessions offensively where we didn’t move the ball, and defensively, they kind of got what they wanted there for a while. We had some good stops and some good runs inside the game.”
(On Dwight Howard’s contributions…)
“We tried getting it in to him. I thought Dwight had another good, efficient game tonight. Donatas Motiejunas gave us really good minutes, and Jeremy Lin gave us good minutes off the bench. We got a win, and that’s what we came here to do.”
(On the rough start to the game…)
“We had a bad start to the game. They got six or seven offensive rebounds in the first five minutes of the game. Then we had a bad start to the third quarter. We took a lot of hurried shots and didn’t move the ball at all in the offense and they came down and made shots. We got it under control a bit and just kept on making runs back. For us, it was just good to get the win and move on. It wasn’t a great game for us, but we’ll take the win definitely.”
(On tonight’s win…)
“They’re a good team. Their record doesn’t show it, but they fight hard. They’re a great group of young guys that play together. We wanted to be aggressive throughout the 48 minutes and get great shots. Obviously we knew they were going to make a run, and we just held our composure.”
(On holding on to the lead…)
“We didn’t do it like we wanted to. I think we were up 10 or eight, I turned the ball over, they scored. A couple of other things, we fouled them on a three. Like I said, we had our composure. We got some stops when we needed to and knocked down free throws.”
(On weakness in gameplay tonight…)
“We didn’t attack like we needed to the whole game. We had spurts where we attacked the basket and there were times where we settled for the three or a long two. We have to always be in attack mode.”
(On defense against Bucks shooters…)
“I think they have a very young team and they are learning how to play together. With a veteran like Zaza [Pachulia], he is able to really help them out. They are going to get better. Their record doesn’t look like it now, but you have to give them time. They have one of the youngest guys in the league so it’s going to take some time.”
MILWAUKEE HEAD COACH LARRY DREW
(On tonight’s loss…)
“We just couldn’t quite get over the hump. I thought for the most part we hung in there, and I just kept telling the guys let’s just keep hanging around. The first half we really were just trying to make it work after we lost Larry Sanders and we had to resort to just having one big guy coming off the bench. Zaza [Pachulia] picked up his second foul early, and Miroslav [Raduljica] was playing with two and John Henson was playing with two so it was just a matter of getting through the first half where we could still be in a good position. We just couldn’t get over the hump in the fourth quarter.”
(On the last offensive play with Brandon Knight…)
“That play was designed exactly how it went. I told Brandon just put the onus on the officials in that situation, try to turn the corner and get to the basket. He got to the basket but the shot just didn’t go down. We executed that play well.”
(On developing a culture of competiveness…)
“The bottom line is that when we step out on the floor, we want to be in a competitive mode for four quarters and it doesn’t matter who we put out on the floor. I don’t know what game this is, but if you told me earlier this year that we would be starting Nate Wolters at the shooting guard position and Khris Middleton at the three, and even John Henson at the four, I would have told you that is not where we would be. Things have turned out the way they have turned out, and going into this game we knew we were going to be very shorthanded. We have had to mix it up, and we are working with what we have. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want from a personnel standpoint, but that doesn’t mean you don’t come out and compete at a high level.”
(On not finishing at the end of quarters…)
“I just remember at the end of the half we didn’t finish the half very well. They had a double-digit lead, and we were able to cut into that a little bit, but it kind of cost us in the end.”
(On Houston’s offense…)
“They’re one of the highest scoring teams in the league for a reason. I thought we did a decent job defensively, but we didn’t get enough stops.”
(On his career-high 19 points…)
“Coach gave me a lot of minutes. Just tried to be aggressive out there. I thought the last couple games I was a little passive, so just started out aggressive and got into little bit of a rhythm.”
(On the loss…)
“We’re learning on the fly. We had some new guys out there. We’ve got to learn to lock down to finish, but I think we’re improving, as you can see. At this point of the season, 50 games in with this group and injuries, it’s all you can ask for.”
(On Larry Sanders’ injury…)
“It hurt, but hey, it’s part of the game. He’ll be fine in a couple days. I think over the All-Star Break he’ll get healthy as well. We’re going to tough it out for the next couple games and we’ll be fine.”