The Houston Rockets played arguably their worst defensive game of the season on Friday in allowing 149 points against the Dallas Mavericks, and an opponent just as threatening loomed on Sunday. Fortunately, the Rockets managed to figure out their defensive issues. They took down the Milwaukee Bucks, 119-116, behind 22 forced turnovers and 48 minutes of flawlessly executed switching. The Bucks shot only 9-of-35 from behind the arc in the game thanks to Houston's incredible defense.
The Bucks lost the game despite finishing with 29 more rebounds than the Rockets. Their frontcourt trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton scored 86 points and grabbed 42 rebounds, but nobody else could give the Bucks much of anything. Houston's switching defense exists to take away 3-pointers, and Milwaukee's role players went only 4-of-20 from behind the arc. the
The Bucks will now have to wait a few days to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Rockets move up to No. 4 out West, only a game behind the No. 3 Nuggets. The moral victory is arguably as important as the actual one. The Rockets now know they can hang with the NBA's best team. The Bucks were arguably their worst possible matchup, but it didn't matter. Houston proved they could keep up with anyone in the league on Sunday.
Here are the major takeaways from tonight's Houston win.
Houston played championship-caliber defense
The problem for Houston on Friday wasn't scheme or roster. It was effort and conditioning. The Rockets played lazy defense and the Mavericks punished them for it. The difference in effort and energy was night and day on Sunday. The Rockets flew around the court, deflecting passes left and right, stripping unsuspecting ball-handlers at a rate only possible without a center on the floor, and switching so effectively that the Bucks almost never generated open 3-pointers for their role players.
The Rockets don't have to have the No. 1 defense in basketball to win the championship. They need a defense that supports their mathematical advantage over the rest of the NBA. Their defense exists to prevent 3-pointers and generate turnovers. Considering how rarely they turn the ball over and how many 3-pointers they make, they can afford to get killed at the rim if those other goals are met. That was the case on Sunday, and the Rockets got a big win out of it.
The Bucks didn't have to go small
The Rockets likely assumed that their small lineups would force the Bucks to abandon what's worked for them all year long. That's not really what happened. The Bucks won the minutes Brook Lopez played by six points and lost the rest of the game by 10. That is a big win for Milwaukee in the grand scheme of things. It suggests that they don't need to change their identity against smaller lineups. It's an option in their back pocket, and a good one some of the time, but Lopez just went a long way in proving that he can hang on the perimeter well enough in the playoffs to justify remaining on the floor. The Rockets took dozens of corner 3s in this game, and Lopez looked comfortable flying out to contest them.
Lopez remaining playable ensures that the Bucks will win the rebounding battle in every series they play, and their elite rim-protection will force opposing teams into worse shots. He has been their third-best player all season, and Houston's hope in playing so small is that teams like the Bucks have to take valuable players off of the floor to match them. Tonight, they lost on that front. The Bucks were comfortable playing their best big man.
Houston has plenty of room to climb
Midway through their win over Dallas on Friday, it looked like the Rockets could slide as far as No. 7 in the Western Conference. With this win, they've jumped up to No. 4. They trail the Denver Nuggets by only a single game in the standings, and while the two won't meet in a seeding game, the Nuggets are currently compromised from a depth perspective. Many of their guards were late to the bubble.
The question for Houston is, would they rather be No. 3, or No. 4? There are benefits to both. At No. 3, they would likely draw the weakened Utah Jazz in the first round. They've beaten Utah two years in a row. But that would also mean getting the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round, a worse matchup for them than the No. 1 Lakers. Houston has put itself in a position to get the seed that it wants in the playoffs. That was far from a certainty a few days ago.