The Rockets' unconventional nature is no secret at this point, but Houston's first two games in Orlando have been jarring in a number of respects. James Harden and Co. allowed 85 points in the first half against Dallas on Friday before erasing a seven-point deficit with less than a minute remaining. Sunday provided a touch of déjà vu.
Houston trailed Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks by eight points with just over three minutes to play on Sunday, hemorrhaging points in the paint at a troubling rate. But the Rockets quickly turned the tide in a 120-116 victory.
The Rockets forced three turnovers in the final three minutes as they seized the lead, icing the contest with seven straight made free throws. Houston hasn't been perfect in their first 101 minutes in Orlando, though its looked like a championship contender in stretches. Sunday marked another piece of evidence in the the Rockets' case as a true threat to win the Western Conference.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday's victory.
Small-Ball Steps Up
The Rockets have faced plenty of bully ball through two games in Orlando, though Sunday night provided a true double dose. Milwaukee won the points-in-the-paint battle by 40 in Houston's victory, and the Rockets finished the night minus-29 in rebounding differential. Milwaukee's behemoths took true advantage of the severe size disparity.
The Bucks didn't simply benefit from drives to the rim and second-chance points on Sunday. Milwaukee turned back the clock time-and-again in the second half, feeding Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez in the post. Houston frankly invites post possessions from opponents, though Milwaukee's sheer size did appear to be overwhelming in spurts. Perhaps Houston's efficiency play isn't always the most prudent path.
The margins on the boards and in the paint are certainly ugly, though Houston will simply have to live with losing those battles on a near-nightly basis. The Rockets have another path to defensive success in Orlando. Houston's defense has the personnel to truly wreak havoc with a sea of limbs, using its length and active hands to disrupt passing and driving lanes. The Rockets executed their formula to a tee on Sunday. They forced 23 turnovers in the victory over Milwaukee, and they added a slate of impactful tips and deflections in the fourth quarter. Houston believes it can overcome even the most severe size disadvantage with enough energy and effort.
"Everybody says we're undersized, but you've gotta keep fighting," Harden said postgame. "Once we get that ball, we're out. It just takes good spirit, good fighting, and making sure we're communicating."
Threes Rain in Orlando
Houston's performance from beyond the arc truly highlighted the contrast in styles on Sunday night. The Rockets launched triples to a historic degree as the Bucks pounded the paint, hitting 21 threes in a regulation-record 61 attempts. There is no room for modesty in Mike D'Antoni's offense, even on a cold shooting night. Six Rockets attempted at least seven threes on Sunday. Only one made at least 50%. The simple math makes Houston's three-point frenzy a worthwhile tactic. The Rockets' singular style can generate wins where other teams would suffer blowouts. Sunday night provided a prime example.
Role Players Shine
Houston still found enough firepower to overcome Milwaukee despite a middling night from James Harden. And while D'Antoni only played eight players on Sunday, all eight made a meaningful contribution. All five Rockets starters finished the night in double figures, and six Rockets hit at least three triples. Daryl Morey has formed an effective cast around Houston's pair of MVPs.
Danuel House continued to shine on Sunday as he fills in for Eric Gordon in the starting lineup. House canned four of eight threes vs. Milwaukee, and his greatest contribution came with two clutch free throws in the final minute. House has shown more verve off the bounce in Orlando than he did earlier this season, and he's continued to trust his jumper despite bouts of inconsistency. The Rockets rely on their two stars to a near-historic degree. They'll still need quality efforts from the supporting cast in order to reach the Finals.
Up Next: vs. Blazers on Tuesday
The Rockets will look to stay undefeated in Orlando on Tuesday as they face Damian Lillard and the Blazers. The contest is certainly consequential for Portland, who currently sits 0.5 games behind the Spurs for the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference. Lillard and Co. registered their first loss in Orlando on Sunday as they faced the Celtics.
Tip-off on Tuesday is slated for 8 p.m. CT.