Two MVP candidates went at it Wednesday night. Neither one blinked, but only one of them could win.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 27 points and 21 rebounds earned a victory, as the Bucks pulled out a 116-109 victory over James Harden and the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center.
Harden went for 42 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, but he also committed nine turnovers as the Bucks turned up the defense in the second half.
Milwaukee used a 25-2 run — 19-2 to close the third quarter, and the first six points of the fourth quarter — to turn an 81-73 deficit into a 98-83 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter.
P.J. Tucker’s 3-pointer slowed the run and snapped a streak of eight straight missed 3-pointers for the Rockets, but Ersan Ilyasova answered with a triple to push the lead back to 15.
The Rockets used an 8-0 run to get within 107-102 with 3:46 left, but Antetoknounmpo made huge plays down the stretch.
First, he seemed to be stymied by a Houston double-team with the shot starting to dwindle. Antetokounmpo found a flashing Eric Bledsoe underneath for a layup to make it 109-102 with 3:26 left.
The Rockets kept pushing, though, and were within 109-106 when Antetokounmpo made 1 of 2 free throws with 1:39 left. He then went high in the air and guided Khris Middleton’s missed shot into the hoop with 39.6 seconds left to make it 112-106.
Antetokounmpo knocked down two more free throws with 25.4 seconds left to make it 114-107, effectively sealing the victory.
With their 11th victory in 13 games, the Bucks (29-11) moved back into the NBA’s top slot by percentage points over the Toronto Raptors. The Bucks won just one quarter, but their 15-point margin in the third quarter cancelled Houston’s narrow margins in the other three periods.
Malcolm Brogdon added 24 points in a huge performance. He continually drove the lane for layups, as the Bucks posted a whopping 70-24 margin on points in the paint. That easily offset the Rockets’ 30-point margin on 3-pointers. Houston went 18 for 46, but made just 4 of their last 20 from behind the arc after starting 14 for 26. The Bucks held the Rockets to 37.6% shooting (32 for 85).
Khris Middleton added 15 for the Bucks, and Sterling Brown continued his excellent play off the bench with 13 points.
Clint Capela added 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Rockets, who had won 12 of their previous 14 games.