After struggling vs. Ja Morant, Rockets brace for Giannis Antetokounmpo
There is a certain glamour in the way Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dominates on both ends of the court, but it is his defense that might resonate the most.
What makes the Bucks truly formidable is the force with which they suffocate opponents’ offenses. That was the case in Milwaukee’s season-opening 90-88 road victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, a performance built on the defensive prowess of Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Jrue Holiday.
The trio will be charged with spearheading the defense again when the Bucks host the Houston Rockets on Saturday.
“Our defense was phenomenal,” Antetokounmpo said. “Brook was everywhere making it tough for Joel (Embiid, Philadelphia’s center), just crowding the paint for everybody. They had to make tough floaters.
“At the end of the day, if you told us we were going to score 90 points and win the game, I’d probably say, ‘No way.’ But this is our goal. We want to be one of the best defensive teams and we want to go out there and compete together, and we did that. Hopefully, we can carry it over to Saturday.”
The Rockets surrendered 20-point double-doubles to Atlanta guards Trae Young (23 points, 13 assists) and Dejounte Murray (20 points, 11 assists) in a season-opening loss to the Hawks on Wednesday. They also struggled against Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant on Friday.
Morant paired 49 points — just three shy of his career high — with a game-high eight assists in the Grizzlies’ 129-122 victory at Houston.
The Rockets attempted multiple coverages defensively to slow Morant to no avail, as he torched every attempt to blitz the pick-and-roll as well as every drop coverage. And when Morant wasn’t scoring at will, he found teammates behind the 3-point arc. Memphis shot 19 of 42 (45.2 percent) from the 3-point range.
“They all did that, they made 19,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said, referring to Morant finishing 5 of 6 from deep. “One of our things is protecting the paint and we did a decent job of that. The 3s are what hurt us the most.
“As we go through the season, we’ll find that if we do a good job protecting the paint and they’re making 3s, it’s going to be a little bit tougher for us to win. But we have to get out there and contest.”
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The Rockets’ reliance on youth likely will yield a lack of defensive execution at critical junctures this season. Houston asked guards Jalen Green, 20, and Kevin Porter Jr., 22, to lead the coverage against Morant.
The Rockets wanted to blitz Morant when Memphis set screens on his behalf, but after Houston center, Bruno Fernando departed with a knee injury in the third quarter, they were left with slow-footed second-year big Alperen Sengun or rookie forward Jabari Smith Jr. to handle that responsibility.
Despite their shortcomings, the Rockets made Memphis work hard to secure the victory. It marked another yeoman’s effort for a youthful bunch short on experience but long on desire.
“We want to be a team that’s hard to play against,” Silas said, “and we were.”
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