The unconventional nature of the Rockets is no secret at this point, but Houston’s first two games in Orlando were jarring in a number of ways. James Harden and Co. allowed 85 points in the first period against Dallas on Friday before erasing a seven-point deficit with less than a minute to go. Sunday provided a touch of deja vu.
Houston edged Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks by eight points with just over three minutes left on Sunday, bleeding spots in the paint at an alarming rate. But the Rockets quickly turned the tide with a 120-116 win.
The Rockets forced three turnovers in the final three minutes as they took the lead, freezing the fight with seven straight free throws. Houston wasn’t perfect in his first 101 minutes in Orlando, even though it looked like a stage championship contender. Sunday marked another piece of evidence in the Rockets case as a real threat to winning the Western Conference.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s victory.
Little ball goes up
The Rockets faced a lot of bullets in two games in Orlando, although Sunday night provided a real double dose. Milwaukee won the points battle in the paint by 40 points in Houston’s victory, and the Rockets finished the night minus-29 in rebound differential. The behemoths of Milwaukee have really taken advantage of the serious size disparity.
The Bucks didn’t just take advantage of the rim workouts and Second Chance points on Sunday. Milwaukee fell back repeatedly in the second half, feeding on Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez in the post. Houston candidly invites possessions from its opponents, although Milwaukee’s size has seemed overwhelming in spurts. Maybe Houston’s efficiency game isn’t always the safest route.
The margins on the boards and in the paint are certainly ugly, though Houston will just have to live with losing those battles almost nightly. The Rockets have another route to defensive success in Orlando. The Houston defense has the staff to really wreak havoc with a sea of limbs, using their length and active hands to disrupt passing and driving lanes. The Rockets executed their formula off a tee Sunday. They forced 23 turnovers in the victory over Milwaukee, and they added a list of hard-hitting tips and deviations in the fourth quarter. Houston believes he can overcome even the most serious size disadvantage with enough energy and effort.
“Everyone says we’re undersized, but you have to keep fighting,” Harden said after the game. “Once we got that ball, we went out. It just takes a good spirit, good fights and making sure we communicate. “
Threes Rain à Orlando
Houston’s performance beyond the arc really brought out the contrast in styles on Sunday night. The Rockets threw triples at historic level as the Bucks hammered the paint, hitting 21 threes in a regulation record of 61 attempts. There is no room for modesty in Mike D’Antoni’s attack, even on a cold filming night. Six Rockets attempted at least seven lines on Sunday. Only one made at least 50%. The simple math makes Houston’s three-point frenzy a valid tactic. The Rockets’ singular style can generate wins where other teams suffer explosions. Sunday evening provided a prime example.
Role players shine
Houston always found enough firepower to beat Milwaukee despite an average night from James Harden. And while D’Antoni only played eight players on Sunday, all eight made a significant contribution. All five Rockets starters finished the night in double digits and six Rockets made at least three triples. Daryl Morey has formed an effective cast around the Houston pair of MVPs.
Danuel House continued to shine on Sunday as he replaced Eric Gordon in the starting lineup. House boxed four of eight threes against Milwaukee, and his biggest contribution came with two clutch free throws in the last minute. House showed more verve on the rebound in Orlando than he did earlier this season, and he continued to trust his jumper despite inconsistencies. The Rockets rely on their two stars to an almost historic degree. They will still need the quality efforts of the supporting cast to reach the final.
Up Next: against the Blazers on Tuesday
The Rockets will look to go undefeated in Orlando on Tuesday against Damian Lillard and the Blazers. The competition is certainly important for Portland, who are currently 0.5 games behind Spurs for the No.9 seed in the Western Conference. Lillard et Cie recorded their first loss in Orlando on Sunday against the Celtics.
A tip-off Tuesday is scheduled for 8 p.m. (Paris time).