The anticipated MVP battle didn’t really materialize on either end, but Giannis Antetokounmpo got a lot more help and the victory Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum.
Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four assists on a rather modest night, but his Milwaukee Bucks used a huge third quarter to post a 108-94 victory over James Harden and the Houston Rockets
Harden finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, ending up more than 13 points under his league-leading scoring average. Harden made just 9 of 26 shots, including 1 of 9 on 3-pointers.
The Bucks (56-19) reduced their magic number to three for clinching the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Rockets (47-28) slipped to fourth in the Western Conference behind the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Rockets got out to a quick start and led by as many as 11 on Danuel House Jr.’s 3-pointer that made it 34-23 with 10:15 left in the second quarter.
From there, the Bucks took over behind a surge of energy provided by Pat Connaughton. A 13-3 run pulled the Bucks within 37-36, Khris Middleton’s running banker and 3-pointer capped an 11-2 run that gave the Bucks a 47-42 lead, and they held that same lead of five at 58-53 at the half.
To that point, Connaughton had made 3 of 4 3-pointers for nine points. He also posted three assists and two steals, as the Bucks came up with nine steals in the half.
The Bucks made it a blowout in the third quarter. More accurately, Eric Bledsoe made it a blowout in the third.
The point guard scored 16 straight Bucks points, 11 of them uninterrupted by the Rockets, as the Bucks defense continued to hound Rockets ballhandlers.
Bledsoe’s 3-pointer made it 79-65, and Connaughton made two free throws and a 3-pointer to cap a 7-0 run that made it 88=69. The Bucks led, 90-71, entering the fourth.
The Rockets got no closer than 13 in the final period.
While Bledsoe led the Bucks with 23 points, Connaughton contributed throughout the boxscore with 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
The Rockets struggled throughout the night against a hounding Bucks defense. Chris Paul added 19 points but went just 7 of 18. Starters Eric Gordon (0 for 7) and P.J. Tucker (1 for 9) combined to go 1 for 16. Gordon did not score in 23 minutes, Tucker had three points in 36 minutes.
The Rockets shot just 36.4% (36 for 99), including 16 of 52 (30.8%) on 3-pointers.
Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton each had 13 for the Bucks, although Middleton had a horrible shooting night at 6 for 23. Sterling Brown started in place of Tony Snell (sprained ankle) and contributed 11 rebounds to go with eight points and some harassing defense.
In the end, the Bucks made another statement against a strong team that had won 13 of its previous 15 games. Milwaukee swept the season series, 2-0.
The Bucks only need to finish 4-3 in their final seven games for a 60-win season.