Russell Westbrook's Late FTs Lead James Harden, Rockets Past Giannis, Bucks

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistAugust 3, 2020

Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook goes up for a shot against the Milwaukee Bucks during an NBA basketball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)
Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press

The Milwaukee Bucks aren't quite locked into the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed yet.

The Houston Rockets defeated Milwaukee 120-116 on Sunday at Walt Disney World Resort, enacting some revenge for their October loss in the only other regular-season matchup between the two teams and preventing the Bucks from clinching that top spot. Houston has won both its seeding games in the league's campus-like environment in Florida.

Russell Westbrook spearheaded the comeback down the stretch as his team overcame an eight-point deficit with three minutes remaining.

He answered baskets from Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the final minute with free throws to put Houston ahead each time before Khris Middleton missed two potential game-tying threes in the final seconds.

Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets

Squad got the big W! https://t.co/OHG0LhkG0m

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Harden put the clamps on Giannis in crunch time 🔒 https://t.co/dPdgdHg9vX


Notable Player Stats

  • James Harden, G, HOU: 24 PTS, 7 AST, 7 REB, 6 STL, 5-of-14 FG, 3-of-12 3PT
  • Russell Westbrook, G, HOU: 31 PTS, 8 AST, 6 REB, 5 TO, 10-of-21 FG
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, MIL: 36 PTS, 18 REB, 8 AST, 14-of-25 FG, 2-of-5 3PT
  • Khris Middleton, F, MIL: 27 PTS, 12 REB, 6 TO, 10-of-18 FG, 3-of-8 3PT
  • Brook Lopez, C, MIL: 23 PTS, 12 REB, 2 BLK, 9-of-18 FG


Westbrook Shines in Battle of MVPs

The last three seasons have ended with either Westbrook, Harden or Antetokounmpo holding the MVP trophy.

What's more, Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP and likely to win the award again this season despite a late push from LeBron James before play was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He and Harden have also rarely hesitated to take jabs at each other when the opportunity presents itself.

SportsCenter @SportsCenter

Harden and Giannis have history 👀 https://t.co/yXLsxT9Ivt

Giannis had individual bragging rights early when Milwaukee's defense that is tops in the league, per NBA.com, frustrated Harden and held him to 1-of-8 from deep in the first half. That frustration mounted when George Hill drew an offensive foul on the eight-time All-Star, giving him four fouls before halftime. 

At least that one triple moved No. 13 into elite company:


Congrats to @JHarden13 of the @HoustonRockets on becoming the 5th player in @NBAHistory with 2,300 3-pointers made! https://t.co/foK2KemLNR

In theory, the Bucks should have pulled away from Houston with Harden dealing with foul trouble given their status as the team with the league's best record.

Westbrook wouldn't let it happen. 


3⃣6⃣ straight games with 20+ PTS! #OneMission #WholeNewGame https://t.co/rncbcrqQId

The UCLA product showed touch from mid-range, steamrolled to the basket, found teammates for corner threes when Milwaukee collapsed, pushed the tempo in transition and handled much of the ball-handling duty for stretches with Harden dealing with fouls.

His individual play and facilitating to open shooters gave Houston a double-digit lead in the third quarter, and he took over down the stretch. The Rockets scored 16 points in the final three minutes, and Westbrook scored or assisted on 11 of them in a clutch performance on a marquee stage.


Team Effort Falls Short for Bucks

If Antetokounmpo becomes a more consistent shooter beyond the arc, it won't be fair for defenses. 

The only chance to stop him is playing off and creating a wall in the lane to cut off penetration, but on this night the 30.7 percent three-point shooter countered with two triples. He also broke free in transition on a number occasions, overpowering whichever singular defender was in his way, and dominated on the glass.

It wasn't just him, though, as Middleton and Lopez mixed in double-doubles of their own while trying to counter Houston's stunning 61 three-point attempts. Lopez consistently flashed into open space around the rim and scored on the blocks while Middleton took advantage of the openings created by Antetokounmpo from outside and inside the arc.


🔥 K-Midd 🔥 17 PTS, 6-6 FGM for Khris. #WholeNewGame #NBAonABC https://t.co/xnTGizzNNa

StatMuse @statmuse

Most three-point attempts in a regulation game: 61 — Rockets (tonight) 61 — Rockets 61 — Rockets 60 — Rockets 60 — Rockets 59 — Rockets 58 — Rockets 58 — Nets 57 — Rockets 57 — Rockets 57 — Rockets 56 — Rockets 56 — Rockets 56 — Rockets https://t.co/VbgHJrufQc

Still, not even that and key baskets from Giannis and Lopez in the last minute was enough when Harden and the Rockets tightened their defense in crunch time and let Westbrook take over on the offensive end with the game on the line.


What's Next?

Both teams are in action again Tuesday when the Rockets face the Portland Trail Blazers and the Bucks play the Brooklyn Nets.