Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden went toe-to-toe when the Bucks and Rockets squared off on Tuesday night. It was supposed to be an electrifying showdown between the two runaway candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player of the Year award.
Instead, the viewing public saw a display of most valuable coaching. That’s because Mike Budenholzer, for the second time this season, installed an extreme defensive game plan that took Harden and the Rockets completely out of his game.
It’s one of three reasons why the showdown between East and West MVP wasn’t as eventful as the world wanted.
1. The Bucks locked James Harden down
Harden finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, but he shot just 9-of-26 to get there, turned the ball over four times, and shot only five free throws. What’s this wild scheme that Milwaukee is implementing against one of the most deadly scorers in NBA history?
Force him right. If that doesn’t work? Force him right again. And again. By forcing him away from his dominant hand, the Bucks had effectively taken away his vaunted step-back jump shot. They also gave him a “free lane” to the basket, where a man would slide over to help.
Harden is also deft at drawing fouls, so Bucks defenders made sure to show their hands in the air every time he had the ball.
This is the exact same thing Milwaukee did in a 116-109 win in Houston in early January, as explained by SB Nation’s Mike Prada. The worst thing a defense can do is allow Harden to dance around the perimeter before hitting a three and potentially drawing a foul on it. Eric Bledsoe set the tone for the Bucks defense that night, and all of his teammates followed suit.
“It wasn’t even trying to stay in front of him,” Bledsoe told reporters then. “It was almost like, ‘You can have the lane.’”
“Just try to run him off the 3-point line and send him to Giannis and Brook… It was a team effort.”
Eric Bledsoe on defending James Harden: pic.twitter.com/Q86kYJ2WbA
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 27, 2019
2. Giannis did all his damage early
Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block. Every basket seemed to be an impossible, extendo-finish at the rim.
But while Antetokounmpo finished 7-of-15 from the floor, six of his field goals came in the first half. His last one was a layup early into the fourth quarter.
That’s because Milwaukee pulled away early into the third quarter, and Giannis didn’t need to overextend himself. His teammates had the game under control, and one in particular was the MVP of this game.
3. Eric Bledsoe was the man of the hour
Not only did Bledsoe lead the charge in checking the league’s unguardable man, but he also led the charge in putting the Rockets away.
Bledsoe tied Harden for a game-high 23 points. More importantly, he scored 16 straight points in the third quarter, including 11 unanswered in a two-and-a-half minute span.
By the time Bledsoe’s personal run was over, Milwaukee was up, 79-65. Since the Bucks had found a way to neutralize Harden, this game had been decided, and it was E.B. who got the game ball.
“For him to take the challenge and deliver on both ends of the court, heck of a performance,” Budenholzer said of Bledsoe after the game.
The Bucks’ social media team won MVP — literally
The Bucks’ social media team photoshopped it so Tucker was walking with Antetokounmpo.
Can we get this in a seven-game series, please?