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  • The Bucks topped the Rockets on Wednesday, but James Harden may be surpassing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the MVP race.
By Michael Shapiro
January 09, 2019

Wednesday’s battle of MVP favorites lived up to the billing in the Bucks’ 116-109 win over the Rockets, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden putting up stat lines worthy of the game’s highest award. The Greek Freak bruised and bullied his way to 27 points and 21 rebounds, getting to the line 14 times. Harden continued his unconscious stretch over the last month, pouring in 42 points along with 11 boards and six assists in the defeat. Milwaukee exited Houston with an impressive road victory, but the MVP race is no clearer than prior to Wednesday’s battle.

The dueling performances took decidedly different tones. Antetokounmpo registered his first 20-rebound effort of the season in an almost-quiet fashion. There were no gazelle strides turned into runaway dunks, a fourth-quarter tip-in slam one of the few standout highlights of the evening. Much of the third-quarter comeback was spearheaded by Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe, and even on a cold night from Khris Middleton, it’s clear Milwaukee is far from a one man show. The Bucks supporting cast and head coach Mike Budenholzer have no problem helping shoulder the load.

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James Harden doesn’t have the same luxury at the moment. The Beard is the undisputed fulcrum of Houston’s entire attack, with an offensive burden presently unmatched throughout the league. Harden has topped 40 points eight times over the last month, bringing the Rockets from 14th in the West to sixth with 12 wins in their last 15 games. Chris Paul’s recent absence has forced Harden into a high-volume machine, and he’s proved up to the task time and again. The degree to which Houston relies on Harden will likely generate a slew of eye-popping scoring nights in the second half, and perhaps some more MVP moments like his game-winning three in Houston’s 135-134 win over Golden State on Jan. 3.

The strategies to stopping Harden have been exhausted at this point. Each solution springs a new problem. George Hill got torched for a trio of triples in the second quarter on Wednesday while Brogdon and Khris Middleton committed three-point shooting fouls while falling prey to the deadly Harden stepback. Budenholzer relied on solid strategy in the second half—employed brilliantly by the Spurs in the 2017 West semifinals—with Milwaukee’s defenders literally standing to left of Harden as he stood beyond the arc. The severe shading deterred Harden from a step back, but he then barrelled into the lane, forcing Brook Lopez and Thon Maker into a nearly-unwinnable game. Corral Harden, and watch Clint Capela roll for a jam. Hang with Houston’s center, and Harden will feast on floaters. Capella had a particularly dreadful night from the floor, but 11 free throws and 16 shot attempts illustrate the flood of easy opportunities generated by Harden. Not a bad gig for $90 million.

WOO: Years of Shrewd Moves See Bucks, Raptors Continue to Showcase Contender Status

We shouldn’t discount Antetokounmpo's mammoth production to start the season. He’s one of the league’s preeminent interior forces, pouring in points and gobbling rebounds at a rate similar to Joel Embiid. Giannis is a physical marvel unseen since LeBron, acting effectively as a point-center on most nights. Yet since Dec. 8, it’s been Harden’s night-to-night brilliance that’s taken him back to the top of the MVP conversation. No superstar carries as significant an offensive burden, and the reigning MVP will have plenty of opportunities to snag the award despite Antetokounmpo's early lead. Harden would happily take the help, but he’ll have no problem playing Superman in the season’s second half.

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