The Milwaukee Bucks are the only team in the NBA ranking in the top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That in and of itself is a nod to just how well-rounded of a team they are.
But if you’re staunchly against efficiency stats like those, look no further than the Bucks’ 116-109 win over the red-hot Houston Rockets on Wednesday night. Yes, the Rockets were missing both Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, and this story may also dually serve as an ode to Houston needing CP3 back from a hamstring injury.
But the same Rockets who won seven of their last eight trailed by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter against Milwaukee. When they made a late surge, Harden came up short.
The Bucks were the better team on Wednesday night, showing just how deep and versatile they are on both ends of the floor. If they play this way all season, they may very well find themselves competing for a championship.
The Bucks defended Harden beautifully
Yes, he scored 42 points in 41 minutes. It was his sixth 40-point game in his last eight outings and 14th straight game with at least 30 points. Harden is unguardable and can get his shot in his sleep. This much we know.
But if Harden scored 42 points in his sleep, Milwaukee made it a living nightmare. He shot 13-of-30 (43 percent) from the field, 6-of-16 (37.5 percent) from three, and turned the ball over nine times. The league’s reigning MVP slapped his hands in frustration and yelled “Damn!” as he walked off the court after his loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night. That’s because, unlike most teams he’s been able to dance and prance around this season, the Bucks weren’t having it.
Milwaukee has one of the most versatile rosters in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, George Hill, Tony Snell, and Sterling Brown can each defend most guards and wings. Not to mention Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s front-runner for the MVP this season who can guard any position, one through five.
Milwaukee’s game plan looked simple enough: they forced Harden away from his dominant left hand, taking away easy drive and kicks. The player who veered from the plan, Hill, got torched by Harden for 12 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field in the first half alone.
But those shooting numbers aren’t the end all be all. Often times, Harden ended up passing out off the drive against Milwaukee. The Bucks let the Rockets live and die by their other shooters. Players other than Harden who played substantial minutes on Wednesday shot 9-of-28 from three.
Here’s the first time we see Hill get extreme in forcing right. Perhaps this pass was what Van Gundy was talking about, Harden had better shooter Tucker open in corner but prefers left handed pass to House, missed corner 3s are dangerous pic.twitter.com/zS1HgVvIfl— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) January 10, 2019
Players who didn’t veer from the plan forced Harden into uncomfortable — by his measure at least — situations that sped the game up a little more than he’d like. The defense looked out of this world. But Harden is an out of this world player. You have to do new things to get him out of his rhythm. This funky looking defense worked, even for just one game.
The Bucks will foul out every big man they have in the 3rd quarter if Bledsoe insists on playing defense this way pic.twitter.com/guiJD0Cv61— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) January 10, 2019
Look at the shot Hill forced Harden to make in the second half by taking his left hand away. If he’s hitting these, you’re in for a long night.
Perfect defense by George Hill. Force Harden to take these shots and you can’t let it bother you that he hits them. pic.twitter.com/QCietQ4MaR— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) January 10, 2019
It seems simple enough: take away a lefty’s left hand and render him ineffective. But Harden isn’t just a lefty. He’s a superhuman lefty who will send you to the floor if you defend him wrong. Ask Jamal Murray. Ask Wesley Johnson. Hell, ask Malcolm Brogdon, who slipped to the ground in the fourth quarter Wednesday and may have been a highlight had The Beard made the ensuing shot.
Milwaukee didn’t just try to take away his left. They turned every stone to defend that hand. Credit head coach Mike Budenholzer. He’s been incredible this season and very well may be the Coach of the Year front-runner.
This wasn’t just a defensive showcase, though
Need another number? How about 27?
That’s how many points Giannis Antetokounmpo scored on 8-of-16 shooting from the field against the Rockets. He also grabbed a career-high 21 rebounds, which doesn’t make much sense for a human being, but we’ll allow it either way.
Luckily, Milwaukee had Brogdon, who scored 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field. He didn’t hit a single three. Instead, he scored off cuts to the rim and taking his man to the rack.
SB Nation’s Milwaukee Bucks blog Brew Hoop explained how Brogdon has emerged as a vital piece to Milwaukee’s success. He’s on pace to join Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller, Larry Bird, Mark Price, and Steve Nash as the newest member of the ever-so efficient 50-40-90 club (that’s 50 percent shooting from the field, 40 from three and 90 from the foul line).
Milwaukee outscored Houston by 24 in minutes Brogdon played, and Harden shot just 2-of-10 from the field on possessions he was defended by him, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Brogdon is getting in done on both ends — just like his team as a whole.
Thing I will never understand: Opponents trying to pick off a pass swung to Malcolm Brogdon.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) January 10, 2019
If you miss it, he will score on the straight line drive.
But if we learned anything about the Bucks on Wednesday, it’s that they’re malleable. They will adapt to their opponent. It could be Brook Lopez one night, Khris Middleton the next. It might be death by Giannis Antetokounmpo on a Monday and a thousand Malcolm Brogdon paper cuts on a Wednesday.
The Bucks are for real, even if this isn’t their final form. They’re just ahead of the Raptors for the best record in the NBA. They may have the league’s next Most Valuable Player of the Year. If they have the best player on the floor with a deep team around him that competes on both ends every night, they’ll have a chance to win it all, no matter who they play against.