In the first game of the season for both teams, the Milwaukee Bucks went on the road on Thursday night and registered an impressive 117-111 victory over the Houston Rockets. Making the win even sweeter for the Bucks was that they battled through plenty of adversity to get it.
Down by double digits for almost all of the first half, and as much as 16 early in the third quarter, it looked like the Bucks would begin their season with a tough loss. Giannis Antetokounmpo wouldn't let them go down without a fight, though, and got them back into the game with a huge run late in the third. But just after they finally took the lead midway through the fourth quarter, Giannis fouled out after accidentally bumping Clint Capela under the basket.
At the time Giannis left the game, the Bucks led 101-95, and the Rockets immediately rattled off five straight to make it 101-100. Everyone in the building, and most watching on TV, assumed that it would be all Rockets from that point on, and for good reason. They had all the momentum, and it was hard to see how the Bucks would be able to counter the one-two punch of Russell Westbrook and James Harden down the stretch without their MVP.
As it turned out, it was the Rockets who didn't have any answers on the defensive end. Over the final three and a half minutes, the Bucks kept running the same play over and over, punishing the Rockets for playing small against Brook Lopez, who turned the clock back to his New Jersey Nets days by dominating in the post.
Here's how the Bucks got themselves consistent good looks down the stretch without Giannis and closed out the Rockets.
The first time Milwaukee ran this action was coming out of a timeout after the Rockets' 5-0 run cut their lead to 101-100. Sensing the excitement in the arena, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer knew his team needed a bucket to stop the Rockets' momentum, and drew up a great play.
It started with Eric Bledsoe bringing the ball up on the left wing, with Ersan Ilyasova at the top of the key and Wes Matthews spacing out to the opposite corner. Meanwhile, Khris Middleton sets a cross-screen on the baseline for Brook Lopez.
After setting the screen for Lopez, Middleton then sprinted off a pindown from Ilyasova. His man (Danuel House Jr.) had to help on Lopez on the block until Clint Capela could recover, and had no chance to get back out to Middleton at the top of the key. Bledsoe fires the ball to Middleton, who drained the big shot to push the Bucks' lead back to four.
The play worked so well, that the Bucks just kept going back to it. Adjusting for what happened the first time they saw the play, the Rockets -- playing small at this point with Capela off the floor -- decided to switch the cross-screen on the baseline this time around.
So the Bucks countered as well and dumped the ball down to Lopez on the block, where he's being guarded by Eric Gordon. That's about as big of a mismatch as you're going to get in the league, so Harden tries to dig down on Lopez to help. He doesn't fully commit, though, and gets caught in no man's land. That leaves Ilyasova wide open at the top of the key, and he knocks down the jumper after the pass from Lopez.
A few possessions later, the Bucks go right back to the same play. This time, the Rockets don't switch, and P.J. Tucker fights his way through the screen. He's able to use his strength to force Lopez a bit further away from the basket, but the Bucks still dump the ball down into their big man.
The Rockets have had success using Tucker as a small-ball five over the past few seasons, but even with as strong and physical as he is, the 7-foot, 270-pound Lopez is just too big for him. After George Hill clears out that side of the floor, Lopez goes to work and just bullies Tucker, who is forced to foul him.
With the Rockets still playing small, the Bucks go right back to old faithful on the very next possession. Once again, Tucker navigates the screen on the baseline and this time he's able to force Lopez all the way to the 3-point line in the corner to catch the ball.
Once again, however, Lopez was just too big and too strong. He backed Tucker down until he got into the paint, and then turned over him to hit a little leaning fadeaway. That was by far the worst look the Bucks got out of the action, but Lopez was feeling it and knocked it down to give Milwaukee a six-point lead with 40 seconds to play.
This obviously isn't going to be a common occurrence for the Bucks this season, as Giannis isn't going to foul out most nights. Still, it was fun to watch them work through how to play without him down the stretch in a big game.
It was a bit ironic, too, that Lopez -- who scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter -- sealed the game with his work in the post after surprising everyone in the league last season with his superb 3-point shooting.