MILWAUKEE — Chris Paul had a message for MVP voters Tuesday night: The Houston Rockets’ 108-94 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks shouldn’t matter when ballots are cast.
Paul admits that he’s biased in his belief that his Rockets co-star James Harden should repeat as MVP. But he was adamant that Harden’s relative off night in a showdown against Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the other MVP frontrunner, shouldn’t sway any votes.
The Bucks held Harden to 23 points on 9-of-26 shooting, only the fourth time this season he finished with more field goal attempts than points. He also had 10 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks in the loss.
Antetokounmpo also had a mediocre game by his extremely high standards, recording 19 points, 14 rebounds and four assists.
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“James went on a historic run. Know what I mean?” Paul said, referring to Harden’s streak of 32 consecutive 30-point performances, carrying the Rockets from 14th place to third in the Western Conference standings during that stretch despite Paul and center Clint Capela missing extended time due to injuries. “Obviously I’m biased about the MVP and whoever or whatnot, but those of you that decide it on head-to-head games with a few games left in the season, good luck with that. Happened to me in ’08.”
Paul finished second in the MVP voting that season behind Kobe Bryant, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 107-104 win over Paul’s New Orleans Hornets in the final week of the regular season.
Paul said he meant no disrespect to Antetokounmpo, whose all-around excellence for the team with the NBA’s best record has made the MVP race competitive despite Harden being in the midst of one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history.
“I get to see James play a lot more,” Paul said. “You’ve got to understand that me saying that doesn’t mean that Giannis hasn’t had an amazing season and stuff like that. He’s been great for his team and all that, but I see what James does every night, too.”
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The Bucks had success defending Harden by aggressively forcing him to drive right and try to finish in traffic, playing the same scheme they did in a Jan. 9 win in Houston, when he had 42 points and six assists but was only 13-of-30 from the floor and committed nine turnovers.
Milwaukee guards Eric Bledsoe and George Hill, the primary defenders on the NBA’s leading scorer, consistently positioned themselves close to Harden’s left hip even when he didn’t have the ball in his hands. They essentially invited him to drive to his right, funneling him into the paint where the presence of center Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo forced Harden to frequently settle for floaters.
Harden was 1-of-9 from 3-point range and 4-of-5 from the free throw line — getting significantly fewer attempts than his averages of 13.3 and 11.0, respectively — but dismissed the impact of the Bucks’ defensive scheme.
“None,” Harden said. “I still got my shots up. I still was aggressive. I still did what I was supposed to do. Obviously, some shots didn’t go in like every other game, but as a team we had our shots that we got. Tonight, they didn’t go in. If they go in, it’s a different ballgame. Credit to them, they made shots.”
Harden often found open spot-up shooters as a result of the Bucks’ aggressive help on him, but the Rockets couldn’t make Milwaukee pay. Houston starters PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon combined to miss 12 of their 13 3-point attempts.
“When you’re not making shots, they’re going to stay on him,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, referring to Harden. “He needed help from Eric or PJ to knock down shots. I’m not a big believer in them stopping James. It’s that we stop James, and that’s about it. They did what they’re supposed to do. I don’t want to take anything away from them.”