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Houston Rockets vs. Milwaukee Bucks game preview

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NBA: Houston Rockets at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

With the backdrop of a fascinating James Harden vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo MVP debate, the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks will find time to complete a friendly little game of basketball tonight.

Make no mistake: no one will change their minds based on this game. The voters would love for one of the players to drop 50+ in a dominating win and take a stranglehold on the MVP race so they can vote without attracting the vitriol of the Twitter masses. While the talk shows want the race to continue through the playoffs (and beyond), most voters are probably looking for cover as they look to put an X next to someone’s name. We’ve covered the MVP debate and why we think Harden is the rightful winner of the award, but the defeatist in me thinks that Giannis will walk home with the hardware.

I mention all of that to set up this: tonight’s game on its own is far more important to the Rockets (including Harden) than an MVP trophy. Harden definitely wants a second award, but he’s also been on the record many times stating that winning is the most important objective.

The Rockets sit in third place in the Western Conference as I write this, and the third spot is preferable to the fourth spot for obvious reasons. Look, someone among the Jazz-Clippers-Spurs-Thunder quartet is going to end up in fifth place. No one wants to face a team coming into the playoffs hot, and that’s undoubtedly going to be the whomever finishes ahead of the other three. The sixth place team will probably be playing well, but they clearly won’t have finished the season with as much momentum as the fifth seed.

The Bucks have the top spot in the East all wrapped up. They now await their opponent, which could realistically be anyone in the Nets-Pistons-Heat-Magic-Hornets quintet. With LeBron James off to the West, the East is wide open and and there are at least three teams (and Boston if they get their act together again) that firmly believe that this is THEIR year to get to the Finals and take down the big bad West champ.

With a balanced and deep squad, Milwaukee seems the most likely to accomplish the feat. The Bucks have had great health until recently, as they lost Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic, and Pau Gasol for extended periods of time recently. Tony Snell is day-to-day and is out tonight as well.

Even past those four, the Bucks run a deep lineup. After the trio of Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, and Khris Middleton, the Bucks have shooters galore in Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Sterling Brown, and D.J Wilson. Each of those guys shoot 36% from deep or better. Even their bad shooters, Pat Connaughton and George Hill, are good for about one made triple per game. Everyone on this team has been put around Giannis to help keep the paint open for him, and everyone knows their role: shoot when open. In that sense, they play similarly to Houston. However, it’s the ways in which they create those shots that are completely different.

Which brings us to the “aesthetics” portion of the game. That is to say, the Bucks under Mike Budenholzer like to drive and pass, leading to persistent ball movement that keeps everyone involved and creates open looks. If you’ve watched the Spurs play over the last 20 years, you’ve got a decent idea. The wrinkle is that Antetokounmpo can do things on his own, as can Middleton and Bledsoe. The Greek Freak in particular is sometimes given a runway to the basket as teams back off and dare him to shoot. Giannis isn’t stupid, and he is able to use those head starts to make his drives easier to complete. Much like Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio before him, Giannis can use the safety play of his defender against his opponents.

All of that is to say that Giannis could bury three triples tonight and muck up everything. Or Bledsoe might be unstoppable and drop 40. Or Middleton can prove why he was an All-Star as he looks toward free agency this summer. Or the Bucks will go 20-40 from deep and turn this into a blowout. The point is that Milwaukee doesn’t have one strategy on offense; they have ten.

Defensively, you could expect the Bucks to shade behind Harden as they did at Toyota Center. The strategy worked and became a brief blueprint to slowing down the Beard. With an inability to trigger his trademark stepback three, Harden resorted to drives to the basket, where he was swarmed and forced to cough up the ball to Clint Capela, who had a rough night (4-16 shooting) and was completely blanketed by Lopez (four blocks) down low. Again, those forays into the paint played into Milwaukee’s hands and was exactly what they wanted. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Harden has spent the last three months working on a floater to nuke the scheme.

I’m not sure how to predict this game. The Bucks don’t need it as badly as the Rockets, but the crowd and both teams will understand that the game has a greater significance than just one win or loss. There’s no way either team is going to let up tonight. One mini-run might be the difference. I’ll say Milwaukee wins a close one, 108-104.

Tip-off is at 7pm CT on TNT with the universally reviled Players Only hosting. The game is also being broadcast locally if you have AT&T Southwest.