Bucks 126, Rockets 106: Return of Middleton, Matthews power Milwaukee to win

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Following a rare practice Tuesday afternoon, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer sounded optimistic about where his depleted team was headed soon.

All-star Khris Middleton was off the injury report following eight days off after suffering a knee injury. Rodney Hood, Semi Ojeleye and Thanasis Antetokounmpo also were removed off the injury report, and Wesley Matthews exited the health and safety protocols.

While Giannis Antetokounmpo, Donte DiVincenzo and Bobby Portis remained in the protocol as the team took the court against Houston on Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum, the three are closing in on the 10 days most players have spent in it.

“It’s kind of interesting for us because obviously we’ve been dealing with a lot but we feel like we’re actually right about to turn the corner,” Budenholzer said after Tuesday’s practice.

And despite being without starting guard Grayson Allen and forward Sandro Mamukelashvili, a more robust Bucks roster and the emotional return of Matthews helped overcome the Rockets 126-106.

Matthews had been in the league’s health and safety protocols from Dec. 11-21 and posted on Instagram earlier in the day that his grandmother had passed away.

The 35-year-old Marquette University alumnus made six of his seven shots and scored 16 points off the bench to spark the Bucks.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) is fouled by Houston Rockets forward Jae'Sean Tate (8) during the first half of their game Wednesday, December 22, 2021 at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis.MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL
Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) is fouled by Houston Rockets forward Jae'Sean Tate (8) during the first half of their game Wednesday, December 22, 2021 at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis.MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

"It meant the world to me because my grandma meant the world to me and what brought her the most joy was watching me play," an emotional Matthews said after the game. "So there was no doubt. I knew what I had to do. The support of my family, my friends, just leaning on my faith. And these guys and this organization is just incredible. And I didn't know what to expect, what kind of emotions...but if anything she just wanted me to hustle, work. That's what I was going to do, whether I made a shot or didn't make a shot. I was going to leave everything out there because I know what brought her joy. Hoping we did that again tonight with the win.

"The team played hard. This team plays hard. Credit Houston. It took a lot for us to beat them in Houston (on Dec. 10) so we knew you give a young team like that confidence that they're going to come out with an edge and an energy and we matched it and then some. With bodies down and guys down, we all stepped up and it was a big night. It was a good win and we've got to get ready for another tough opponent tomorrow."

Middleton 23 points and six assists and tied a season high with nine trips to the free throw line.

“I thought he had a good bounce,” Budenholzer said. “He had a good bounce in practice (Tuesday). I think he’s excited to be back and playing and healthy. He just gives us a confidence. I thought he had a good pop tonight.”

Jrue Holiday added 24 points and 10 assists, while fellow starters DeMarcus Cousins (18 points) and Jordan Nwora (15) also reached double figures.

BOX SCORE: Bucks 126, Rockets 106

The Bucks are now 20-13 overall and improved to 3-4 without Antetokounmpo and 7-11 when one or more of the Big Three of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday are out. Houston dropped to 10-22.

Milwaukee heads to Dallas on Thursday night, where Jason Kidd’s Mavericks will be without at least six players due to the health and safety protocols, including star Luka Dončić.

Houston was led by Christian Wood’s 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Eric Gordon added 12 points. The Bucks limited Rockets rookie big man Alperen Şengün to 10 points off the bench.

Playing with a 21-point margin in the early part of the fourth quarter, the Bucks never were in danger of losing their large lead in closing out the Rockets. Houston worked the lead down to 14 points on two occasions in the middle of the quarter, but Hood and Holiday answered with baskets to prevent any further damage.

A Pat Connaughton three-pointer with 4 minutes, 28 seconds left put the Bucks up 119-98 and effectively ended the game.

Middleton subbed out with 7:46 to in the game and Holiday’s evening finished at the 4:07 mark.

Milwaukee blew the game open in the third quarter and led by as many as 23 points in taking a 97-76 lead into the fourth quarter. The Bucks made 5 three-pointers and prevented Houston from getting back into the game with timely baskets. The Rockets cut a 72-53 lead to 72-61 early in the third, but then Middleton scored six straight points to end that threat and put Milwaukee up 78-61 at the 6:28 mark.

Houston would get no closer than 11 points the rest of the way, and a Matthews three with 1:01 left gave Milwaukee its biggest lead at 95-72.

Matthews played a big role in the Bucks’ 63-50 first-half lead, also. The margin was built thanks in large part to a 16-0 run that spanned nearly four minutes in the second quarter, a stretch that broke a 31-31 tie and gave the Bucks a cushion to work with the rest of the quarter.

“I think just being consistent,” Holiday said of what turned in the second quarter. “I thought we did a good job defensively and we know how it is when you’re kind of going back-and-forth scoring. I think we ended up getting stops and making plays there at the end. I mean, Wes just coming out and bringing that energy that he does, playing his heart out and leaving it all on the floor and we feed off that.”

Holiday scored seven of his 13 first-half points in that run but Nwora provided the highlight, sending Armoni Brooks falling and sliding to the baseline after a move that resulted in a step-back three.

"Yeah, I think the first thing is like nobody ever wants to make a move like that then miss the shot," Nwora said. "So I had a lot of time so I just really locked in 'cause it wouldn't have mattered if I missed."

"We would've booed you, yeah," Holiday quipped. "We would've booed him if he missed the shot. It was a nice move, though."

Houston would cut that 16-point lead to 47-41, but then Matthews hit all three of his three-pointers – including a deep shot from 28 feet that resulted in an emotional outburst.

“Yeah, it’s just amazing,” Budenholzer said. “For Wesley to play the way he did tonight, coming from 10 days or so without being with the team and practicing and competing, it’s phenomenal. Everything he’s dealing with, he’s just one of the ultimate warriors I’ve ever been around. I have so much respect for him and I’m just so glad he’s here. That’s one of the more impressive things I’ve seen in a long time. And for a lot of reasons. He was great. He was big in that.”

Those triples helped end the Rockets threat and pushed the Bucks’ lead to 61-56 with 2:26 to go.

Nwora made 2 three-pointers for eight points in the half. Middleton led all scorers with 15 points, while Matthews came off the bench to go 4-for-4 from the field for 11 points and an assist in nine minutes of action.

Wood led the Rockets with 14 points.

The key run for the Bucks was actually their second protracted one of the half, as they bridged the end of the first quarter to the start of the second with a 10-0 stretch that stole momentum away from the Rockets. Neither team shot it particularly well in the first quarter, and Houston had a 16-2 run of its own to take a 21-13 lead late in the first quarter before Milwaukee got hot. In the final 3:19 of the first quarter Milwaukee flipped that eight-point deficit to a 25-24 lead when the frame ended.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Return of Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews power Bucks over Rockets

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