Statement game

Houston's win over Milwaukee represents micro-ball's potential

Photo via: Rockets/Facebook

The Milwaukee Bucks were favored to beat the Houston Rockets by 5 points Sunday night and honestly, that number felt generous to Houston. Throughout the last two years, the Bucks have been a terrible matchup for the Rockets, defeating them in all three previous matchups. Milwaukee's size and defensive strategy to pack the paint and allow open three-pointers has caused all sorts of trouble for Houston. James Harden in particular, 24 points on 5 of 14 shooting, has seldom performed well against the Bucks in no small part due to the unorthodox nature of Milwaukee's defense.

James Harden against Bucks (2018-19):

32.5 points

10.5 rebounds

6.5 assists

1.5 blocks

1.0 steals

39.3% from the field

28.0% from three-point range

Seldom will Harden ever not score a lot of points against a team, but the Bucks make him do it in an inefficient manner. He's forced to dish out to teammates for a high volume of jumpers (Houston attempted 50 threes per game against Milwaukee last year) and hope they make them.

"A lot of them were good shots," James Harden said of Houston's 61 attempted three-pointers after the game. "[The Bucks] do a really good job of packing the paint - I think they're number one in the league in point paints defensively. They're going to give us threes and we're going to take them."

Harden's right. Because the Bucks pack the paint on defense, the shots the Rockets take are seldom contested. There was a stretch in this game where Rockets center Jeff Green took several open catch-and-shoot three-pointers in a row off of Harden and Westbrook drive and dishes.

The Bucks didn't adjust. They dared Green to keep shooting them.

"That's the only plan we have," said head coach Mike D'Antoni after the game. "So we kind of have to stick with it. That's kind of what we do, but we're going to keep doing it."

It's a pretty simple plan: Take any and all uncontested three-pointers that an opponent is willing to give you. And it's really easy to follow when the Rockets shoot 40% from deep like they did against Dallas on Friday. However, when you're missing several wide-open three pointers in a row, it takes a lot of team-discipline to continue shooting them.

In theory, you could always tell your players that you will benefit from taking those threes in the long-run, but theory is different than practice. Sticking with a game plan even when it's not working takes fortitude and Houston showed that Sunday night.

"Well our whole thing is just keep playing, keep the faith, and do what we do," said D'Antoni. "If you lose, you lose. But we're going to play the way we know how to play and hope it works out.".

The real story of this game, however, is the paint battle, which Milwaukee won 60 points to 20. The Rockets could not get a handle on the Bucks in the paint and they got out-rebounded 65 to 35. And 17 of those rebounds were offensive which led to 23 second-chance points. The Bucks just bullied Houston with their size and under normal circumstances those numbers lead to a blowout loss.

But these weren't normal circumstances, as the Rockets were able to mitigate that rebounding advantage by winning the turnover battle 22 to 9. Houston's active hands allowed them to score 30 points off of turnovers to Milwaukee's 17.

"The fight that we had on the boards and turning them over won the game for us," said D'Antoni. "We're not going to win the post up battle or second chance points, but we can win the other battles. Tonight we did that."

This is the interesting paradigm for Houston. They will never say it publicly, but by going small, they've essentially forfeited the idea of winning the rebounding battle every night. They believe forcing enough turnovers is a way to minimize this problem. The calculus makes sense on paper, but a title team's never done that before.

Most teams also aren't used to playing micro-ball and when you combine the speed at which Houston wants to play with their uniqueness, it can be exhausting.

"I think throughout a game, it's tough to withstand how we play," said Russell Westbrook after the game. "We're used to playing that way. It's something that teams are not used to. And I think it goes to our advantage."

The Rockets are fourth in the NBA in pace and have been the fastest playoff team in the bubble.

"I definitely feel it," Westbrook continued. "I'm always looking at other guys and seeing when they're trying to catch their breath and if they're in tune with what's going on in a game. It definitely wears them down."

James Harden had 6 of Houston's 15 steals. Harden's defense actually became an interesting subplot of the game as it was instrumental, especially down the stretch, to Houston's victory.

Most notably, Harden had a few possessions on forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who mocked his defense earlier this year, and was able to successfully stop the reigning MVP.

The possessions on Antetokounmpo will get the most play, but Harden as a whole was pretty strong defensively. He didn't shoot the ball well, but this will probably go down as one of his more memorable buzzer-to-buzzer defensive performances.

"I don't have anything to prove to anybody," Harden said when asked about his defense after the game. "Nothing to say."

Harden also deflected direct questions about Antetokounmpo.

"It just shows that we're able to execute in close games which is going to be big in the postseason," said Westbrook of Houston's late-game defense. "We're using these games to kind of gear up for that so that's a big-time thing for us."

With Harden struggling to get going, the star of the game was easily Westbrook. Westbrook logged 31 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, and 1 block on 10 of 21 shooting from the field and 10 of 12 shooting from the three throw line. His end-to-end ability provided Houston a pathway to generate easy points because they weren't able to get those in the paint.

Westbrook also provided Houston with a steady hand to guide the offense when James Harden got into foul trouble in the second quarter. The Rockets have been pretty bad in these moments without Harden, but Westbrook was able to hold Houston over until the 3rd quarter.

"Yeah, I think we're comfortable now," Harden said of his relationship with Westbrook. "We found ourselves. It's going to obviously be defense, rebounding, and transition defense because offensively, we can hang with anybody. Once we find that identity, it's gonna be scary for us."

The Rockets are now undefeated in the NBA's restart and have risen to the fourth seed in the Western Conference. They are also just one game back of the Denver Nuggets for the third seed. It will be tough for them to actually rise up, but the opportunity is there if they're diligent.

"It shows we're moving in the right direction," said Westbrook of the early-bubble success. "We just got to stick with it. We know what we're capable of as a team."

By winning this game, the Rockets are much more believable as a title contender than they were before the stoppage. It shows what micro-ball's peak could look like. It may not be probable, but this was a glimpse of the possible

"We've got a long ways to go," said D'Antoni. "We just feel good about where we are right now."

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