For much of their debut as Houston Rockets teammates, James Harden and Russell Westbrook looked like a winning combination.
But Giannis Antetokounmpo swooped in with his finest MVP form to rally the Milwaukee Bucks from a 16-point deficit to spoil the home opener of the new-look Rockets on Thursday.
Antetokounmpo left the door open for Houston when he fouled out with 5:18 remaining and the Bucks holding a six-point lead. But his Bucks teammates held firm for the 117-111 victory.
Houston was dominant for much of the early stages of the game as Westbrook and Harden spent much of their time alternating as floor leaders. The Rockets opened a 12-2 lead early that they extended to 66-50 at halftime.
But the Bucks put the clamps down defensively in the third quarter and held on in the fourth while looking often to their MVP floor leader.
Giannis looks like the real MVP
Antetokounmpo finished with 30 points, 13, rebounds and 11 assists before a foul on Clint Capela under the basket sent him to the bench for good. While Antetokounmpo watched with six fouls Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Ersan Ilyasova ensured that his triple-double wouldn’t go to waste, hitting big shots down the stretch to maintain the lead.
“We stayed together. We play together. We win together. We lose together,” Antetokounmpo told TNT’s Kristen Ledlow after the game. ... “My team without me, they did a great job executing.”
How did Harden, Westbrook play together?
The biggest question entering the night was how Westbrook and Harden — a pair of ball-dominant guards — would look playing together. For much of the night, the plan involved them not playing together. The pair started the game in the backcourt, and Westbrook took the first break on the bench with 6:18 left in the first quarter.
When he returned with 2:49 in the quarter, Harden took his first break. When Harden returned with 8:39 left in the second quarter, Westbrook got another break.
When Westbrook returned with 3:06 remaining in the half, Harden stayed on the floor. The strategy appears to be to keep one of the floor leaders on the court at all times and to play them both in key stretches at the beginning and end of halves.
A similar pattern played out in the second half, except when Harden returned from his break with 9:59 remaining, Westbrook remained on the floor for another two minutes before taking his final brief break. When he returned with 6:10 remaining and the Bucks leading 96-95, both player remained on the court until the game was over.
First Harden-Westbrook highlight
The pair did connect on a late highlight-reel fast break demonstrating the potential explosiveness they bring playing together.
Poor shooting night from both guards
Westbrook finished with 24 points, 16 points and seven rebounds while Harden tallied 19 points, 14 assists and and seven rebounds. Neither was efficient from the floor, where Westbrook shot 7-of-17 and Harden shot 2-of-13, failing to connect on a field goal until a layup with 2:06 remaining in the second quarter. He did the bulk of his damage at the line, hitting all 14 of his free throw attempts.
The tandem is a work in progress, and Thursday’s poor performance from the field doesn’t mark the start the Rockets were looking for. Neither does the loss.
But it’s just one game. There will be plenty of time to see if this experiment of ball-dominant guards finds success.
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