Strength against strength. Weakness against weakness. The Milwaukee Bucks and the Houston Rockets were who we thought they were, showing up warts and all in the restart bubble for a national network audience Sunday night.
The Rockets were four warts, er, points better, 120-116 in a clash of styles that demonstrated what each team does best — and raised questions that will dog them right into the playoffs that begin in two weeks.
Think of Houston, what comes to mind? Three-pointers and lots of them, since the Rockets take and make more than any other team in the NBA. Normally that’s about 44 attempts to make 16.
This time, they launched 61 and made 21. Those came against, not coincidentally, the team that gives up the most 3-point attempts and 3-point field goals in the league.
But that’s who Milwaukee is: a pack-the-paint bunch that all but dares opponents to beat them from the arc. Meanwhile, the Bucks zealously defend the interior, stifling attempts at the rim better than anyone.
It’s a formula-slash-gamble on the percentages that typically works, especially across 29 opponents in an 82-game regular season with limited game planning. As the field of foes narrows, it might become more of a vulnerability, considering what happened against Toronto in the East finals last spring when Fred VanVleet got hot.
An essential part of the Bucks’ defensive scheme is to get stops without fouling. They ranked fifth in fewest free throws allowed heading into Sunday’s game, showing a discipline that keeps them from beating themselves by giving away freebie points.
This time, though, they put the Rockets on the line 31 times for 27 free throws made. James Harden (11-of-13) and Russell Westbrook (10-of-12) alone combined for more than the Bucks typically allow to entire teams. It all left Houston with a 10-point advantage with the clock stopped, more than enough.
Against a team that has determinedly gone “small-in” on centerless basketball – the Rockets’ tallest starter is 6-foot-7 Robert Covington – the Bucks were able to flex their size all night. They outrebounded Houston 65-36. They scored 60 points in the paint, while giving up only 20.
Presumptive repeat Kia Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo had another efficient night cramming the stats sheet (36 point, 18 rebounds, eight assists in 33 minutes). Meanwhile, the biggest man on the floor, center Brook Lopez, dominated inside with 23 points and 12 boards.
And yet, the Rockets’ shorter, quicker lineup wreaked havoc on the Bucks’ ball protection. Twenty-three turnovers were way too many, good for 30 of the Rockets’ points. They didn’t always show Antetokounmpo numbers of defenders as he bore down on them, but they did it enough. They bothered Middleton into six turnovers, matching his season-high.
Both teams were playing shy one Eric – Gordon for the Rockets, Bledsoe for the Bucks. Gordon is out two weeks with a left ankle sprain, while Bledsoe is working himself back from a positive case of coronavirus. Gordon would have liked to launch some of those 3-pointers, but Bledsoe was missed more by his team, especially as a disruptor on defense.
The clash of two MVPs – Greek Freak vs. The Beard – never quite materialized with Harden shooting poorly and idling through part of the game. But he had seven rebounds and seven assists to go with his 24 points. That left opportunities from the arc for Daniel House, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker and Jeff Green, the latter two taking advantage of Lopez repeatedly leaving them open in the corners.
What did live up to its billing was the glimpse of both the Rockets and the Bucks in full. They did well what they do better than most, while coping with flaws that were exposed at both ends of the floor.
It didn’t mean much in what probably was the last game they’ll play against each other this year. But it meant plenty for what each of them will try to do, and hide, as they make their way through their respective conferences.
The Bucks and the Rockets might have the most pressure to advance, East and West, of any of the 16 eventual playoff teams. Both look formidable. Both look vulnerable — the Bucks a little more so, Sunday night.
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