MILWAUKEE’S NBA Most Valuable Player contender Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 27 points to lead the Bucks to a hard-fought 116-109 victory on Wednesday over reigning MVP James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
Antetokounmpo added 21 rebounds and was a physical presence on both ends of the floor as the Bucks battled back from a 60-54 halftime deficit to end the Rockets’ 10-game home winning streak.
“He just does everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of the imposing Antetokounmpo, who drained 11 of his 14 free-throw attempts. “He has a huge impact on winning.”
The Bucks led by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter, but Harden and the Rockets had whittled that lead to three with less than two minutes remaining.
Antetokounmpo, after missing a free throw with 1:39 to play, came out of a timeout and made the second to keep the Bucks ahead by four.
After Harden turned the ball over, then regained it with a steal only to miss a three-pointer, Antetokounmpo made sure the next Bucks possession produced some points as he rose to tap in a miss by Khris Middleton.
Harden, who finished with 42 points and 11 rebounds, missed another three-pointer and the Bucks held on to take their record to 29-11 – percentage points ahead of the 31-12 Toronto Raptors for best record in the league.
Malcolm Brogdon added 24 points, connecting on nine of 12 from the field. All of those baskets came from the paint, where the Bucks out-scored the Rockets 70-24.
In Boston, the Celtics led by as many as many as 31 points in a wire-to-wire 135-108 romp over the Indiana Pacers.
The Celtics notched their fourth straight victory – all coming at home before they set off on a road trip that starts in Miami on Thursday.
Starting forward Marcus Morris and reserve Jaylen Brown both scored 22 points for the Celtics and Jayson Tatum added 20.
They jumped on a Pacers team playing their fourth game in six nights, opening the game on an 18-8 scoring run.
In Washington, the Wizards made the most of a return home with a convincing 123-106 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers – a day after the Sixers dominated the Wizards 132-115 in Philly.
The Sixers had won four in a row, but they have now lost nine straight in the nation’s capital, a skid dating back to November 2013.
“We knew what Washington was going to come out with,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown, who said his team’s 24 turnovers was too much to overcome.
“I give Washington credit with their energy, but we weren’t sharp tonight,” Brown said.
Bradley Beal’s 34 points included 14 straight for the Wizards in the fourth quarter. Otto Porter Jr scored 23 and Trevor Ariza added 17 for Washington, with Joel Embiid leading the 76ers with 35 points and 14 rebounds.
The Brooklyn Nets overcame a 19-point first-half deficit to beat the Atlanta Hawks 116-100 in New York.
D’Angelo Russell led the Nets with 23 points. DeMarre Carroll added 17 off the bench and starting guard Joe Harris and reserve Spencer Dinwiddie added 16 apiece for Brooklyn, who edged ahead of Miami for the sixth spot in the East.
Brooklyn opened the fourth quarter on a 14-3 scoring run on the way to their 13th victory in 16 games – continuing their turnaround from an eight-game losing streak that had left them at 8-18 in early December.
The New Orleans Pelicans also climbed out of an early hole erasing a 16-point first-half deficit to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 140-124.
Anthony Davis scored 38 points and pulled down 13 rebounds for the Pelicans, who won a third straight game for the first time since November.
“The game didn’t start exactly how we wanted it to,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, noting Cleveland’s red-hot start from three-point range that saw the Cavs make all eight of their first-quarter three-point attempts.
“I thought in the second half offensively we moved the basketball and did a great job. Obviously if you have back-to-back 40-point quarters the offence is working pretty well.”