Defense rules for Bucks as Kia MVP candidates' firepower sputters

Harden tallies 23 points, 10 rebounds; Giannis has 19 points, 14 rebounds

MILWAUKEE — The first time the “M-V-P” chant went up, as Giannis Antetokounmpo shot and made a pair of free throws with 9:15 left in the fourth quarter and the Bucks ahead 94-76, it made sense.

Milwaukee’s game Tuesday against Houston had been billed as a showdown of favorites to win the NBA’s most prestigious award, with Antetokounmpo and the Rockets’ James Harden going head-to-head for only the second and likely final time this season.

But by the time fans at Fiserv Forum chanted again, with 1:15 left and Antetokounmpo draining his final points, they had blown a ripe opportunity — particularly the boisterous fans in a section that dates back to Andrew Bogut and his cultivation of some football and rugby rowdiness.

At that point, the proper chant would have been: “M-V-D! M-V-D!” Because for all the individual star power on the floor, the difference-maker for Milwaukee was its defense.

Pestering, daring, consistent and expertly executed defense, to be precise.

Folks who showed up or tuned in anticipating offensive pyrotechnics from Harden and Antetokounmpo might have been disappointed. The Houston gunner scored 23 points, 13 below his average (36.4 ppg), while shooting 9-of-26 overall and a clangy 1-of-9 on 3-pointers. Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points, eight shy of his average, while making seven of 15 shots.

Their other numbers were solid — Harden had 10 rebounds and seven assists, Antetokounmpo 14 boards, four assists — but neither would claim the award with 82 such nights.

It wasn’t as if others picked up the slack, either. Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe probably was the game’s best performer with 23 points, seven assists, a steal and a couple of blocked shots. Chris Paul had 19 points for Houston and center Clint Capela added 17.

But the numbers that popped came courtesy of Milwaukee’s defense, the NBA’s finest. It held Houston to 36.4 percent shooting, including 30.8 percent (16-of-52) from the arc. Besides Harden’s misfires, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker were a combined 1-of-16 for the Rockets, 1-of-13 on 3-pointers.

The Bucks were better on the boards (60-46), allowing Houston only eight offensive rebounds. They dominated in fast-break scoring, 28-2, and that wasn’t due only to the Rockets’ preferred slower pace. The visitors had nine chances pushing the ball up the floor, and scored just once. In the paint? It was Bucks 46, Rockets 36.

That last one was the most impressive, if you saw how many times the Bucks almost invited Rockets players — Harden in particular — to attack the rim … and lived to tell about it. Oh, the reigning MVP and NBA’s leading scorer hit several floaters with high degrees of difficulty. But the Bucks were willing to live with those, if it meant getting Harden off the 3-point line and venturing inside with defenders Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo on his mind.

“We were just trying to take him away from what he’s so comfortable doing,” Lopez said. “Our guards, first and foremost, did a great job of making him uncomfortable and getting him out of his spots. Then we had great help side defense from the weak side — Giannis was there — and we were helping the helper. … We were very active.”

Lopez was a model of positioning. He didn’t block a single shot, yet he loomed large in Houston’s shooters mind whenever they ventured inside.

Meanwhile, Bledsoe, Sterling Brown, Khris Middleton and a couple others pulled the on-ball duty against the league’s No. 1 ball dominator. On multiple possessions, those defenders so overplayed Harden’s lethal left hand that they were manned up sideways, forcing him to his right.

It was as extreme as the shifts we see these days on MLB diamonds, almost daring the opponent to take advantage. Heck, several times Bledsoe seemed to be defending Harden from behind, maybe the best way to thwart his trademark, referee-vexing, back-pedaling 3-pointers.

“It’s interesting, right?” Lopez said. “Our guards were very aggressive. It looks like they’re not — it looks like they’re leaving him alone. But they’re doing a lot to get into him.”

Said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer: “It’s about trying to maybe reduce the number of threes he gets, reduce the number of free throws he gets. I think the whole league is trying to be creative — it’s certainly not about a weakness.

“If he’s making tough twos in the paint and we keep him off the free throw line and the 3-point line, you’re giving yourself a chance, to make him have to do something a little bit differently.”

Harden wasn’t too generous toward the Bucks, blaming himself for his misses. “I still got my shots up. I was still aggressive. I still did what I was supposed to do,” he said.

Offensive players and offensive-minded teams tend to think that way — it’s on them, hit or miss — and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni echoed that. “He needed help from Eric or P.J. to knock down shots. I’m not a big believer in them stopping James. It’s what we can stop James and that’s about it.”

That’s fine, but the Bucks held Harden to a combined 22-of-56 shooting (39.3 percent) and swept the season series. They outshot their opponent for the 56th time — they’re 54-2 when they do that — and they top the NBA both in defensive rating (102.4 as the night began) and net rating (9.2).

Antetokounmpo is the linchpin, his defensive bent and prowess bolstering his MVP case. But he has dedicated, reliable help, notably in Lopez and Bledsoe, who was jazzed for his Harden matchup.

“Those guys are All-NBA all-defense guys,” Budenholzer said. “The three prongs were all working well together.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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