Raise your hand if you thought the Milwaukee Bucks would be 27-22 at this point in the season?
Put your hand down, liar.
Milwaukee has weathered injuries and other issues to become the league's second-best team in defensive efficiency. They are top 10 in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, as well as assists.
If Mike Budenholzer wasn't the sexy choice, Jason Kidd would have the Coach of the Year sewn up. The Bucks had the worst record in the NBA last year. As of right now, they're the 6-seed in the East and practically a lock to get into the postseason, where they'll be in a win-win situation. Young teams aren't expected to make noise in the playoffs, but this Bucks team could give plenty of teams trouble.
Tonight, they'll give Houston all they can handle. The Bucks come in on an impressive five-game winning streak that features wins over Portland and Toronto.
Tip off is at 7 p.m. CST.
Point Guard: Patrick Beverley vs. Brandon Knight
Brandon Knight should be an All-Star. With Dwyane Wade possibly missing the showcase, Knight should absolutely be his replacement. I know there's this fascination with the Hawks and everyone wants Korver in the game to give Atlanta four All-Stars, but Knight has been the best player on this upstart Bucks squad.
Both he and Timofey Mozgov came into the public's eye by getting dunked on, but both have continued to improve and those dunks are now just footnotes on their resumes.
Knight is averaging 18/5/4 and shooting a sizzling 41 percent from deep with a 90 percent line from the charity stripe.
Shooting Guard: James Harden vs. Khris Middleton
Both of these players hit game-winners against the Suns this season. Both play shooting guard.
Middleton is an Aggie, so it's difficult for me to say nice things about him. But I'll try. He's shooting 44 percent from distance and 48 percent overall.
It goes against the narrative, but it's important to note that Houston has shot fewer free throws than their opponent in five straight games. I know that I'm supposed to say that Harden flops and all he does is shoot free throws and that he can't make a shot to save his life, but hard facts are starting to tear down the narrative (which was flimsy to begin with, honestly).
In fact, in Houston's more recent games it seems that the Rockets are getting the short end of the stick from the referees. They're still getting into the paint and scoring paint points, but they aren't getting foul calls. Part of that is Dwight Howard being injured. He gets free throws at an impressive rate, even if he misses them at an equally impressive rate. But it's not just about free throws. Foul trouble is important too since it deters big men from contesting throughout the game. This in turn allows driving lanes for James Harden to do his damage.
The Bucks are tied with Houston in averaging the second-most fouls committed per game. So maybe the trend will end tonight.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Jared Dudley
In the 5-game winning streak, Dudley is shooting 55 percent and 46 percent from 3.
So um, hopefully the Rockets don't leave him on switches.
Power Forward: Donatas Motiejunas vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis is averaging 14/8 in his last five games. In fact, the move to power forward seems to have worked for him (small sample size caveat applies). He's not a great 3-point shooter so the move inside is more conducive to success.
I think most would agree with me that Kidd is a COY candidate, but I know Rockets fans would hate some of things he does. For example, he's not afraid to run an 8-man rotation (something that would get McHale crucified) and has started playing small-ball with the Greek Freak at the 4 (punishable by death for McHale retractors).
To be fair to Kidd, he's dealing with injuries. Ersan Ilyasova has been out with a groin injury (he's questionable tonight). Jabari Parker tore his ACL, Kendall Marshall did too, and Larry Sanders is suspended for violating the substance abuse policy.
Still, the small-ball lineup from Milwaukee might cause McHale to counter with the small-ball lineup that he's been forced into using with Howard out. Essentially, McHale has been happy to use Terrence Jones and Josh Smith together, and as long as they keep up the intensity that we've seen then he's smart to use it. The Bucks can score on the break with the best of them, and Houston needs to stay athletic to compete with the Bucks. Which means...
Advantage: Not fair, since they won't match up much.
Center: Joey Dorsey vs. John Henson
We may not see much Joey Dorsey tonight. I know you're devastated.
Rockets: Propeller Plane, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Terrence Jones, Kostas Papanikolaou
Bucks: Johnny O'Bryant, Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo
Prediction: Massive win for Rockets (h/t H&Hguy)
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