All eyes were on Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden as the two MVP favorites squared off on national television in front of a sellout crowd at Fiserv Forum.
As well as both of them have played this season, neither could lay claim to the starring role on Tuesday night. Sure, they each put up notable numbers, but there’s no question the night belonged to someone else.
That someone was Milwaukee Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe, who provided an emotional lift throughout and put the Bucks on his back in the third quarter, single-handedly igniting the scoring run that put the game firmly in Milwaukee’s favor. Over the final 17-plus minute, the margin never dipped below double digits as the Bucks cruised to a 108-94 victory over the Houston Rockets, sweeping the season series and improving to 3-0 on their four-game home stand.
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Bledsoe, who had 23 points and seven assists, was at his best in the third quarter when he put together a personal 11-0 run. That stretch, which came after a particularly lackluster effort by the Bucks in transition, came with Milwaukee leading by just two early in the third.
He got things going by blocking Harden from behind followed by netting a 3-pointer at the other end. Bledsoe added another pair of 3-pointers over the next two minutes followed by a layup to cap it off.
All during that four-minute stretch, Milwaukee’s defense worked in harmony to hold Houston to 0 for 9 from the floor. Ultimately, the Rockets shot just 36.4 percent from the field and 16 of 52 (30.8 percent) on three-pointers as the Bucks locked them down throughout the night.
Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points on 7 of 15 shooting with 14 rebounds and four assists in the victory. Pat Connaughton added 14 points off the bench while Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez finished with 13 apiece.
Bledsoe was a thorn in Harden’s side throughout the night with his unusual, side-hugging defense and positioning even behind Harden aimed at disarming him of his signature step-back three-pointer. That positioning combined with Bledsoe’s athleticism resulted in two rear-view blocks of Harden, one going out of bounds and the other smacking hard off the backboard, as he helped the Bucks hold the league’s leading scorer to just 23 points on 9 of 26 shooting.
In addition to his defense, Bledsoe was also there when the Bucks (56-19) were in greatest need of an offensive lift. After a slow start resulted in an 11-point hole early in the second quarter, Bledsoe figured strongly into a 13-3 run, scoring four points and assisting on two other buckets.
He capped the run with an assist followed by stealing the inbound for a layup. He followed that layup by smacking the ball out of Harden’s hands as the reigning MVP went to collect it out of the net. It earned the Bucks a delay of game warning, but also sent the crowd into a frenzy that wouldn’t be matched until he caught fire after halftime.