MILWAUKEE -- It was a battle of MVP candidates on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, but neither Giannis Antetokounmpo nor James Harden stole the show in the Bucks' 108-94 victory. For that matter, no single player did. Rather it was the Bucks' unique defense that will have everyone talking, as it held James Harden to just 23 points -- 13 below his season average -- on 9-of-26 shooting.
Using the same strategy they employed in the first matchup with the Rockets earlier this season, the Bucks completely overplayed Harden's left hand, giving him a clear path to lane -- so long as he drove right. It was the type of scheme you might expect to see against a dominant middle school player, or even out on the playground, but not in an NBA contest. At times it was almost comical, as Bucks defenders ended up to the side, and even behind Harden in an effort to prevent him from going to his dominant left hand.
But strange as it may have been to watch, it's hard to argue with the results. While Harden was given an open door into the lane, he was quickly met by one of the Bucks' bigs -- usually Brook Lopez -- while his defender hustled back from behind. Often unable to get all the way to the rim, he was left choosing between an awkward floater over the defense, or kicking it out to a shooter on the perimeter.
"I was just really pleased with the defensive effort tonight," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said after the game. "For all four quarters really. Particularly in the second half, it felt like we were really trying to make things as difficult as possible for all the guys on the court. It felt like the guys really put the effort in."
Harden still made some shots, because he's one of the best offensive players the league has ever seen, but they were tough looks, and not in the areas he prefers.
Notice how many shots he took inside the paint, but not at the rim. For the season, he's taken just 68 such attempts, just about one per game. On Tuesday night, he took seven.
Additionally, due in large part because they sat on his left hand and prevented him from getting off his patented step-back jumper, Harden went just 1-of-9 on 3-pointers. He averages over 13 3-point attempts per night, and the one make is the fewest he's had since back on Feb. 27.
Eric Bledsoe, who was the primary defender on Harden for most of the night -- and had a spectacular game, finishing with 23 points, three rebounds, seven assists and two big blocks on "The Beard" -- summed up the Bucks' strategy nicely: "Just try to run (Harden) off the 3-point line. Credit to Giannis and Brook, they did a hell of a job tonight."
It didn't hurt that the Bucks avoided fouling Harden as well. Being able to get to the line for easy points generally allows Harden to put up big scoring nights even when his shot isn't working. But on Tuesday night, he took just five free throws, well below his season average of 11.
Both Harden and Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni downplayed the impact of the Bucks' strategy on Harden's poor game.
"That's what they tried to do to him in Houston, but I think he had 41 points and a triple-double," D'Antoni said. "When you're not making shots, they're going to stay on him. He needed help from Eric [Gordon] or PJ [Tucker] to knock down shots. I'm not a big believer in them stopping James, it's that we can stop James and that's about it."
The man himself was a bit more direct. Asked what kind of impact the Bucks' defense had on him, Harden offered: "None, none. I still got my shots up, I was still aggressive. I still did what I was supposed to do."
It's true that the Rockets struggled from outside in this game. Eric Gordon and Tucker went a combined 1-of-13 from 3, and as a team they shot just 16-of-52. If some of those shots go down, it's obviously a different game. That can be said on most nights though, and it's clear from both the video and the stats, that, this time at least, the Bucks' defensive game plan succeeded.