The pleasures of a six-game home stand – sleeping in one’s own bed, familiar facilities, close proximity to Kopp’s – give way to life on the road for the Milwaukee Bucks. Their three game trip starts off against James Harden and his merry band of long-range riflemen.
After dropping a game to their Eastern Conference foe for top billing, the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee managed to bounce back with a confident performance against an undermanned Utah Jazz team. Yes, Ricky Rubio left early in the game and the Jazz were missing some integral pieces, but Rudy Gobert gave Giannis Antetokounmpo all he could handle in the paint with the Greek Freak finishing at 30 points (on 30 shots) and 10 rebounds. Milwaukee’s confidence finishing them out in the fourth was a promising sign, particularly after some of the team’s early season struggles at the ends of games.
Tonight’s game presents a difficult defensive battle for Bud’s system. Milwaukee, as we all know, gives up the highest percentage of 3-point attempts from their opponent in the league. Conversely, the Rockets take the highest percentage of their shots from deep, an absolutely staggering 47% per Cleaning The Glass (Milwaukee is second at 39.6%). Milwaukee’s been a bit better at corralling treys in the corners from opponents (ranked 12th in the league), but the Rockets rank first in those locations as well. Meanwhile, the midrange may as well be the source of a bubonic plague breakout to them and they only shoot the 20th highest percentage of shots at the rim, another high efficiency area that Milwaukee’s been excellent at deterring opponents from. Harden is gonna Harden, but the Bucks need to ensure the Rockets supporting cast aren’t the ones punishing them for overhelping towards the reigning MVP.
Splash Mountain’s 3-point propensity continues to astound, and will be particularly important tonight with the Rockets collection of paint-ground centers in Clint Capela and Nene Hilario. While drawing them away on the offensive end will be helpful, the more fascinating chess match will be on the defensive end. James Harden’s gunning means Coach Bud may have Lopez shading up just a touch on pick-and-rolls rather than taking up residence in the lane. However, it’s possible he just concedes those Harden shots, relies on his defender working around a perimeter screen and Lopez remains down low to contest Capela oops or Harden drives.
Fresh off a 12-point waxing of the West’s best team, the Denver Nuggets, the Rockets are riding a high since James Harden turned the heat to high on his celebration pot. After a loss to Dallas on December 8, they’ve gone 12-2 since. Their offense is in the top five for the season, not quite at last year’s mark, but they’re still a fearsome force. Over this hot stretch, they’re posting a blazing 117.2 offensive rating, second only to their Texas brethren, the San Antonio Spurs. The big bugaboo has been, along with Chris Paul’s injury, their defense. After ranking 7th last season utilizing Jeff Bzdelik’s switch-happy system, they haven’t found the magic this year, ranking 26th overall (111.6) per NBA.com.
Even after Bzdelik’s return to the team, their personnel hasn’t been able to re-capture that stifling mentality. This run has largely been fueled by offensive explosion rather than defensive clampdowns, as their defensive rating ticked up just slightly to 110.6 during this 12-2 stretch. Houston also posts the fifth-highest free throw attempt rate in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, largely due to Harden’s Oscar-worthy methods at the rim. We’ve groused plenty about Giannis not getting as many calls as maybe he should attacking the basket, so juxtaposing that with Harden should only exacerbate those cries. More importantly, it will be an excellent test for the Bucks’ who have the second lowest foul rate defensively in the league. Keep an eye on the pace tonight too, as the Rockets iso-ball churns out the third slowest pace in the league compared to Milwaukee’s fifth fastest.
Player to Watch: James Harden
I could say Gerald Green since he might still harbor some ludicrous ill-will towards the Bucks for not bringing him in after last year’s training camp, but I’m hoping he’ll be a brickfest all night. Let’s just say I’m somewhat glad Donte DiVincenzo is on the bench to avoid any slim possibility of this same fate happening to The Big Ragu:
Game 40: Against the Rockets, the Bucks will…
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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)
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