The Rockets and Bucks was the matchup many had circled on Sunday's six-game slate, and the contest didn't disappoint.
Two teams, each stocked with a pair of All-Stars, went at it with their contrasting styles of play, which saw a back-and-forth contest unfold at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
Both teams led for nearly the same amount of time in the game - the Rockets led for much of the middle two quarters while the Bucks held the lead for the first and fourth quarters, but when it mattered the most, Houston came through.
Here are the biggest takeaways from this riveting contest:
Rockets' game-sealing 16-4 run
With three minutes to go in the game, Houston trailed 104-112.
Over the ensuing time, they knocked down 3-pointers and clutch free-throws, forced turnovers, and beat the team with the best record in the league.
Russell Westbrook, who finished the game 31 points, eight assists, and six rebounds, kickstarted this run. He scored or assisted on 11 of these 16 points, including four clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds of the game.
This was Westbrook's 36th straight game of scoring at least 20 points, the longest such streak of his career.
Central to their game-sealing run was their work on the defensive end, as they stifled the Bucks down the stretch, frustrating Giannis Antetokounmpo into some costly turnovers and getting crucial stops to ice the game.
"Throughout the course of the game we played some really good defence," Harden said postgame. "They're a good offensive team but we got stops when we needed to."
Harden's defense down the stretch was 💯 pic.twitter.com/c0JN6ZFbhn- Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) August 3, 2020
Khris Middleton added 27 points and 12 rebounds, while Brook Lopez recorded 23 points and 12 rebounds, but outside of this trio, no other Bucks player cracked double-digits.
Giannis puts on a show yet again
Through two games in Orlando, the reigning MVP has been stuffing the stat sheet!
In 33 minutes against the Rockets, Antetokounmpo poured in 36 points, 18 rebounds, and eight assists, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in the past 50 years to have 15 games with at least 30 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to record 15 30-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist games in a season over the last 50 seasons (via @EliasSports) pic.twitter.com/rFqL3cYa1M- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 3, 2020
Antetokounmpo was everywhere for the Bucks, but a string of turnovers and poor decisions on the offensive end in crunch time proved costly.
"Usually when we're up six two minutes to go, we usually close the game out," Antetokounmpo said. "But we didn't do that today, so we've got to learn from it and got to keep moving."
Freaky Flush. pic.twitter.com/ZjNychbnxQ- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) August 3, 2020
Rockets' small-ball delivers
Sticking with their small-ball mantra, with no player 6-foot-8 or taller, the Rockets struggled and were, in fact, dominated in a few categories of the game.
As a consequence of their size mismatch, they were outrebounded 65-36, outscored 60-20 in the paint and 21-10 in second-chance points.
Despite each of those lopsided numbers, the Rockets stuck to their guns and eventually prevailed. They tied their record of most 3-point attempts in a regulation game with 61, knocking down 21 of them.
James Harden, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists, recorded six of the team's 15 steals. They forced the Bucks, who average 15 turnovers per game, into turning the ball over 23 times.
As seen below, the Rockets have picked up wins against solid playoff competition since embracing their super small-ball philosophy.
The 6'7" or Less Rockets are 8-2 against the Bucks, Lakers, Clippers, Celtics, Mavs, Jazz this season.- StatMuse (@statmuse) August 3, 2020
Those teams have a top 9 net rating in the NBA (along with the Rockets, Raptors and Heat - who they haven't played since going small). pic.twitter.com/fdvPbSjDOl
Impact on playoff race
Given their 6.5 game cushion heading into this contest, the result didn't have a major impact for the Bucks.
However, for the Rockets, this win was huge. Improving to 42-24, they jumped from sixth to fourth by moving past the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz. They are also now just a game behind the third-seeded Denver Nuggets.
The Rockets will look to make it 3-0 in the bubble when they take on the Portland Trail Blazers in their next game, while the Bucks face the Brooklyn Nets in their next seeding game.
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