What to Watch For: Bucks (27-22)
Despite injuries or suspensions to half of their roster, the Bucks are arguably playing their most exciting stretch of basketball in years. Milwaukee is five games above .500 for the first time since the 2009-10 “Fear the Deer” season. Its current five-game win streak is the longest since March 2012. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 25 points Wednesday night, even hitting a couple of long jump shots. John Henson is averaging 11.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game as a starter. It was announced Thursday that Brandon Knight will be heading to All-Star Weekend after all — to compete in the Skills Challenge. Giannis Antetokounmpo will join him in New York to compete in the Dunk Contest and Rising Stars Challenge. The Bucks are second in the NBA in defensive rating, according to both NBA.com and Basketball Reference. And they have steadily crept up the rankings in offensive efficiency, now ranking sixth as a team in effective field goal percentage.
However, the Bucks are going to run into trouble against the Rockets if neither Zaza Pachulia nor Ersan Ilyasova returns to action. The Bucks were obliterated on the glass in their overtime win against the Lakers. Los Angeles held a 18-5 offensive rebounding advantage and a 53-35 overall rebounding advantage. Ed Davis and Carlos Boozer handled Milwaukee’s undersized front court, combining for 10 offensive rebounds and 19 defensive rebounds. Boozer also chipped in 28 points.
Jared Dudley provides the luxury of floor spacing and three-point shooting as an impromptu stretch four, but he’s simply outmatched on the boards against sizable opponents. Johnny O’Bryant is rarely outsized at power forward, but he’s yet to show the ability to position himself for rebounds. The Bucks are one of the NBA’s worst on the defensive glass as a team, ranking 27th in defensive rebounding percentage.
Meanwhile, Houston ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage, led by Joey Dorsey, who ranks in the top 10 in the NBA among qualified players (14.1 ORB%). Even without Dwight Howard, who is out indefinitely after receiving an injection in his right knee this week, the Rockets still have an abundance of servicable bigs, including Dorsey, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. The Bucks will have their work cut out for them on the glass, and they won’t have the benefit of playing the otherwise inept Lakers this time around.
What to Watch For: Rockets (34-15)
Since Howard’s injury, the Rockets have won five of their six last games — including victories over the Bulls, Suns and Mavericks. Houston has developed into one of the NBA’s elite defensive teams, ranking in the top five in defensive rating. Surprisingly, their frantically paced, three-point oriented offense hasn’t been as effective this season. Although Houston ranks ninth in effective field goal percentage, its offensive rating and free-throw rate sit around the league average.
While scarcely contributing to Houston’s defensive prowess, James Harden is a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s posting a career-high 27.2 PER, a career-high 27.0 points per game, a career-high 35.2 assist percentage (previous high: 27.3 percent) and a career-high 31.3 usage percentage, all while maintaining a true shooting percentage of over 60 percent. Harden and Howard are then surrounded by a slew of quality role players and floor spacers. The Rockets are built similar to Howard’s Orlando teams — except with an MVP-caliber player added to the mix.
In short, Houston is legit.
Time: 7 p.m. CST
TV: Fox Sports Wisconsin
Radio: 620 WTMJ
Bucks: Ersan Ilyasova (right groin strain, questionable); Zaza Pachulia (right calf strain, questionable); Kenyon Martin (left ankle soreness, doubtful); Larry Sanders (NBA suspension, out); Kendall Marshall (right knee ACL tear, out); Damien Inglis (right ankle surgery, out); Jabari Parker (left knee surgery, out);
Rockets: Dwight Howard (right knee edema, out); James Harden (right knee contusion, probable); Terrence Jones (left leg nerve inflammation, probable)
Bucks: Brandon Knight – Khris Middleton – Giannis Antetokounmpo – Jared Dudley – John Henson
Rockets: Patrick Beverley – James Harden – Trevor Ariza – Donatas Motiejunas – Joey Dorsey
Choose the form of the Destructor: Joey Dorsey
See above. (Reminder: Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis combined for 35 and 29 against the Bucks.)