Houston Rockets vs. Milwaukee Bucks: Preview, Analysis and Predictions

Maxwell Ogden@MaxwellOgdenCorrespondent IIIJanuary 4, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 02:  Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson (R) chats with James Harden #13 prior to the start of the game between the New Orleans Hornets v Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on January 2, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In a battle of two of the 2012-13 NBA season's surprise success stories, the 18-14 Houston Rockets will travel to play the 16-14 Milwaukee Bucks.

Entering the game, Houston sits at sixth in the Western Conference playoff structure. Milwaukee is sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Both teams are looking to start the New Year off with momentum, thus making a second-half postseason push that much more manageable.

If Milwaukee is to get by Houston, it'll need to slow down James Harden. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is presently averaging 26.3 points, 5.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.

We'd be understating his greatness if we called him a tough matchup.

For Milwaukee, it is led by fourth-year point guard Brandon Jennings. Jennings is averaging 18.0 points, 5.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 steals.

Most recently, he dropped 31 points on the San Antonio Spurs.

The question is, can Jennings do enough to overcome Harden, Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets? Or will he come up short in leading his team to victory?

Let's figure that out.

Time: Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV: CSN Houston

Records: Houston Rockets (18-14, 5-8 away) at Milwaukee Bucks (16-14, 9-7 home)

Betting Line: Houston Rockets (+1) at Milwaukee Bucks (-1)

Injuries: Beno Udrih, right ankle; Royce White, personal

Key Storyline: Inter-Conference Differences

Thus far in 2012-13, the Milwaukee Bucks are just 2-7 against Western Conference foes. Those two wins came against the 7-25 New Orleans Hornets and 12-20 Sacramento Kings.

As for the Houston Rockets, they've been far more successful during inter-conference play..

Entering the game against Milwaukee, Houston is 12-2 against the Eastern Conference. One of their two losses came against the 22-8 Miami Heat.

In other words, Houston has been dominant against the East.

Due to this fact, it appears to be a shoe-in that the Rockets will win this battle with Milwaukee. We'd be remiss, however, to ignore Houston's 5-8 record on the road.

The numbers don't lie, folks. This game is leaning in Houston's favor.

Kind of.

Key Matchup: James Harden vs. Monta Ellis

In the video placed above, Monta Ellis stated that the only thing separating he and Dwyane Wade is "more wins and two championships." Time to put up or shut up.

If Ellis wants to establish his status as an elite shooting guard, out-dueling James Harden would be the perfect starting point. It could also be the game that disproves his theory.

That is, if his reputation hasn't already done so.

To be fair, Ellis is the top scorer and second-leading assist man on the Bucks. He's also second in steals.

Unfortunately, Monta is also shooting a career-worst 40.4 percent from the field and 25.7 from beyond the arc. His career slash line sits at .459/.321/.776.

Perhaps taking down Harden could be the game that sets him down a path of consistency.

As for Harden, he is having a career year during his first season out of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's shadow. He's also beginning to discover a phrase known as "shot selection."

Harden has scored at least 25 points in 10 consecutive games. Could Ellis shock us all with his defense and slow him down?

If he can't, he better out-gun him.

X-Factor: Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks

When defending the Houston Rockets, the No. 1 area in which every team struggles is keeping them off of the free-throw line.

The Rockets presently rank fourth in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game at 25.8. They're fronted by James Harden, who leads the NBA in said area individually.

Harden has reached to the foul line more than any other player with 318 attempts. Dwight Howard ranks second at 312 and Kevin Durant ranks third at 279.

The difference is, Howard receives the "hack-a-Howard treatment" in which teams intentionally foul him. Harden does not. 

What this is all building up to is the fact that Larry Sanders is the key to the outcome of this game.

Sanders ranks second in the NBA in blocks per game at 3.00. He's also averaging just 24.7 minutes per game.

Unfortunately, Sanders is averaging 3.8 personal fouls per contest. That suggests he'll place Harden on the line as often as he alters his field-goal attempts.

A proven recipe for success for Houston.

If the Bucks are to defeat the Rockets, it is imperative that Sanders protects the rim. It is equally as imperative that he does not find himself in foul trouble.

Judging the numbers, he will. In turn, the Rockets become the favored team.

The question is, can the Bucks overcome their fouling tendencies and pick up the W? Or will they send Houston to the line enough to lose this game?

To put this into perspective, Houston is 1-4 when they shoot less than 20 free-throw attempts. The pressure is on.

Depth Charts

Houston Rockets depth chart via ESPN.

Milwaukee Bucks depth chart via ESPN.



When the Milwaukee Bucks play host to the Houston Rockets, the teams will be within single-digits of one another throughout. In the end, however, it will be a late-game run by Houston that decides it.

And it's all about foul trouble.

Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings will light up the scoreboard, thus rivaling the production of James Harden and Jeremy Lin. Unfortunately, their frontcourt will be run thin by foul trouble.

Larry Sanders will alter shots, but he'll also foul often. The same can be said for Ekpe Udoh, John Henson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

When they aren't fouling, they'll be forced to keep track of rebounding machine Omer Asik and the smooth-shooting Marcus Morris. That's the effect that Harden has on a nightly basis.

Such will enable Harden and Lin to penetrate late and kick it out to sharpshooter Carlos Delfino. Chandler Parsons will also benefit, thus capitalizing on a positional advantage and scoring with efficiency.

Although Ersan Ilyasova's recent rise in production is encouraging, this is the type of game Milwaukee is built to lose. That is, until their frontcourt learns more discipline.

At that time, we may see a different result. Until then, it is Harden and Houston that secures the win.

Houston Rockets 113, Milwaukee Bucks 104


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