8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -4, Over/Under: 224
What better way to satiate one’s appetite for hoops before the Sweet Sixteen than with a potential NBA Finals Preview featuring the two leading contenders for MVP? That’s precisely what’s on tap at Fiserv Form in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where the Bucks will host the surging Houston Rockets. You would be hard-pressed to find a team in the league hotter than the Rockets (47-27, 3rd in Western Conference) at the moment, who since the All-Star Break have been on a bonafide tear, winning fourteen out of their last seventeen games. It should really come as no surprise that this team has reasserted themselves as one of the true powers out West, for after all, it was only a year ago in which Houston had put together the best record in the NBA (65-17), and pushed the eventual Champion Golden State Warriors to a decisive seventh game in the Western Conference Finals. However, this particular campaign has been fraught with a series of highs and lows thanks to offseason defections and a rash of injuries to key components. That last bit definitely shook things up for Mike D’Antoni’s charges, who were without All-Star Point Guard Chris Paul (15.6 PTS, 41.8% FG, 4.5 REB, 8.2 AST, 2.0 STL, 19.3 PER) for twenty-four games and defensive stalwart Clint Capela (16.5 PTS, 64.0% FG, 12.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.5 BLK, 23.3 PER) for fifteen outings. Now, while that may seem like a death sentence for most teams, most teams don’t have a reigning MVP like James Harden (36.4 PTS, 43.9% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 7.5 AST, 2.2 STL, 0.8 BLK, 30.4 PER) to fall back on. The prolific scorer has been arguably better in 2018-2019 than he was when he claimed the award a year ago, posting offensive numbers that haven’t been seen in the league in years. The bearded genius strung together a remarkable 32-game stretch scoring thirty or more points, averaging 41.1 Points per Game during that period, with the lion’s share of that run occurring without the support of Paul, Capela, or both. Furthermore, his staggering scoring average of 36.4 Points stands as the highest that NBA has seen since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 Points in the 1986-1987 campaign. Harden’s brilliance aside, the other side of Houston’s latest surge has simply been a return to health coupled with the emergence of depth. With one of the most active and creative Front Offices in the league, Houston got to work while their bigger guns were saddled with injuries, acquiring the likes of Austin Rivers (9.0 PTS, 41.5% FG, 31.7% 3FG, 2.1 ERB, 2.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 8.1 PER), Kenneth Faried (13.6 PTS, 59.3% FG, 8.8 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.9 BLK, 22.4 PER), and Iman Shumpert (3.9 PTS, 31.8% FG, 27.1% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 5.7 PER) via the Trade and Buy-out Markets, bolstering their rotation with quality depth and experience, which was honestly their only real glaring weakness a year ago. Throughout his career coaching in the NBA, D’Antoni has notoriously fielded short rotations, which has only been heightened with his current side operating at the fourth-slowest Pace in the league (97.6 Possessions per 48 Minutes). Granted, this has always been a luxury that he’s been able to enjoy in the past, and with Paul and Capela’s returns pushing some to the Bench, there looks to be a wealth of options to choose from come the Postseason, if one of the game’s most notoriously stubborn strategists chooses to get creative.
When we last saw them, the Rockets were busy hammering the New Orleans Pelicans in a 113-90 affair on the road, a contest that was never quite close. The visiting side started quickly, outscoring the hosts 33-19 in the First Quarter, on the strength of seven Three-Pointers in route to leading by as many as twenty early in the second stanza. A game after exploding for Sixty-One Points in a 111-105 triumph over the San Antonio Spurs, the aforementioned Harden didn’t see close to the volume of action that he’s used to, but made the most of it nonetheless, scoring Twenty-Eight Points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field (52.6%), including 6-of-12 from beyond the arc (50.0%), in just under twenty-nine minutes of play. Resting his workhorse when possible down the stretch is a prudent move from D’Antoni, who used this particular matchup as fertile training ground to further develop his team’s depth; five other players scored in double-figures, including Paul (10 PTS, 13 AST), Eric Gordon (18 PTS, 6-of-11 3FG), P.J. Tucker (11 PTS), Danuel House (14 PTS, 4-of-5 3FG), and Faried (11 PTS, 11 REB), with the Bench as a whole accounting for Thirty-Eight Points. As a team, Houston shot 48.8% from the floor, including 21-of-49 from downtown (42.9%), assisting on twenty-four of their Forty-Two Field Goals. Furthermore, they owned the Pelicans on the glass, outrebounding them 51-44. Unsurprisingly, the money ball proved to be the difference, with the visitors outscoring the home side by a whopping Forty-Two Points in that regard. This victory officially clinched a Playoff Birth for the Rockets, who also moved ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the Third in the Western Conference. With just eight games left in the Regular Season, there is still plenty left for these guys to play for, with both the Warriors and Denver Nuggets within in striking distance.
Meanwhile, if the Rockets are the hottest team in the league, certainly the most consistent team this season has been the Bucks (55-19, 1st in Eastern Conference), who own the best record in the NBA, and have been on top for what seems like months now. While it’s highly unlikely that they can match their Franchise Record for wins (66, set back in 1970-1971), there is no question that this team is the best that Milwaukee has seen in quite some time, claiming Fifty-Five victories already, which would be their most since 1985-1986 Campaign. Of course, this all serves as a testament to the job that Mike Budenholzer and his Staff have done with a team that despite possessing a true generational talent in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.4 PTS, 58.2% FG, 24.4% 3FG, 12.6 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.5 BLK, 30.7 PER), had for all intents and purposes underachieved in each of the past two season, crashing out of the Playoffs in the First Round on both occasions. The former Coach of the Year has been worth his weight in gold simply from an X’s & O’s standpoint, with his spacing and ball-movement bringing efficiency and balance to a group that sorely lacked it, while also further developing the young talent of hand. Antetokounmpo has emerged as the aforementioned Harden’s prime competition for MVP, while young wings Kris Middleton (17.8 PTS, 43.7% FG, 38.% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.0 STL, PER) and Malcolm Brogdon (15.6 PTS, 50.5% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER) have thrived in his system, becoming deadly 3 & D specialists as a result. And let’s give the Front Office plenty of credit for identifying and acquiring the right fits to complement the considerable pieces on hand, whether it was signing veteran Center Brook Lopez (12.5 PTS, 45.5% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.6 STL, 2.2 BLK, 17.9 14.8 PER) in Free Agency, trading for veteran Point Guard Geroge Hill (5.8 PTS, 41.7% FG, 28.1% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.7 PER) and Stretch-4 Nikola Mirotic (11.6 PTS, 41.5% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.3 PER) shortly before the Deadline, or adding former All-Star Forward Pau Gasol via Buy-out to bolster the Bench. What we have here, folks, is not just a team, but a true, bonafide championship contender in every sense of the term, with the only thing that could possibly stand in their way of advancing to the NBA Finals in this strange, wild, Post-LeBron Eastern Conference being injuries. There is never a good time to sustain injuries, and doing so with just eight games left to play in the Regular Season certainly isn’t ideal, but it is nonetheless the latest challenge that Milwaukee must face. In addition to Brogdon expected to miss six-to-eight weeks due to a minor Planta Fascia tear in his right foot (which would likely spell his absence in the First Round of the Playoffs), Gasol is likely out for about a month due to a left ankle injury, while Mirotic could be out for up to four weeks with a fractured left thumb. Fortunately for Budenholzer & Co. they have a relatively comfortable 4-game lead over the Toronto Raptors in the Standings, granting the Coaching Staff the opportunity to tinker with their rotation and build some more depth in lieu of the Playoffs. Then again, that’s only if you’re a “glass half-full” kind of person…
When we last saw the Bucks, it certainly didn’t seem like the rash of injuries were affecting them in any negative manner, for they hardly needed a complete complement of players to embarrass the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers in a 127-105 drubbing. Seven different players scored in double-figures, including all five starters, led by Antetokounmpo, who scored a game-high Twenty-Six Points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field (68.8%), along with Ten Rebounds, Seven Assists, and Four Blocks. Middleton chipped in with Seventeen Points, while Lopez added Fourteen, while Hill came off the Bench to post Seventeen of his own. Eric Bledsoe (15.7 PTS, 48.0% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.5 STL, 18.8 PER) filled out the stat sheet with a Dozen Points on 3-of-7 shooting (42.9%), Five Rebounds, Seven Assists, Two Steals, and a Block, without a single Turnover to his credit. As a team, Milwaukee shot a blistering 52.2% from the floor, including 15-of-41 from beyond the arc (36.6%), while dishing out a healthy Twenty-six Assists in comparison to committing just Nine Turnovers. It was an important showing for both Antetokounmpo and Hill, with the former recovering from a lingering right ankle that caused him to miss last Wednesday’s loss to these same cavaliers (102-107), and the latter expected to see many more minutes with Brogdon sidelined for a lengthy period of time. The hosts never trailed in the affair, leading 68-55 at Halftime, before Cleveland cut the lead to 82-73 in the Third Quarter. It marked the Bucks’ twelfth win in seventeen games since the All-Star Break, with their last seven victories coming by an impressive average of 19.0 Points.