The MVP front-runners are in some trouble.
It’s a virtual certainty that either Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo or Houston’s reigning MVP James Harden will win the coveted award this season. And while the voting results there won’t be known until June 24, the only results that truly matter right now to both players are the ones that were determined on Sunday — and the ones that are coming on Tuesday.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were handed their worst loss of the season, a 22-point defeat by the Boston Celtics that cost the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed the home-court edge in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. And the Rockets were angered by what they felt were a series of calls that didn’t go their way in a 104-100 loss to Golden State on Sunday in Game 1 of a West semifinal series.
Both matchups resume with Game 2s on Tuesday: Boston at Milwaukee and Houston at Golden State.
“Right now, we’ve got to focus on playing better,” Antetokounmpo said after Milwaukee fell 112-90 in Game 1. “Obviously, it was one of the toughest tasks we’ve had all season long and especially at home. We’ve just got to regroup … and be ready for Tuesday.”
The Bucks were frustrated by Boston’s defense; Milwaukee’s 90 points represented its third-lowest total of the season.
The Rockets were frustrated by Golden State’s defense, for far different reasons.
Houston contended that Golden State was closing out recklessly on 3-point attempts and not giving the Rockets the proper space to land in many cases — a play that the NBA has tried to crack down on over the last couple seasons, especially since then-Warriors center Zaza Pachulia was involved in such a play where then-San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard got hurt in the playoffs two years ago.
Harden took 858 free throws during the regular season, 172 more than Antetokounmpo — who was No. 2 in the league in that category — attempted. And Harden got to the line 14 more times against the Warriors on Sunday, but felt he should have been there more.
“I just want a fair chance, man,” said Harden, who had a 3-point attempt to tie the game late Sunday — on a play where he wound up falling to the court after a closeout by Warriors forward Draymond Green. “Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it. And I’ll live with the results.”
Losses on Tuesday obviously wouldn’t doom either the Rockets or Bucks, but the task would get significantly tougher going forward. Only 20 teams in NBA history have successfully rallied from a 2-0 series deficit in a best-of-seven matchup. Milwaukee is trying to avoid becoming the 28th team to lose the first two games of a seven-game series at home; of those, only four have recovered and actually won the series.
“It’s going to be tough to surprise anybody with a strategy,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s all about execution.”
CELTICS AT BUCKS
Celtics lead 1-0. Game 2, 8 p.m. EDT, TNT
NEED TO KNOW: The Celtics are 5-0 so far in the playoffs, and have kept Indiana and Milwaukee under 100 points in four of those five games while seeing their own scoring number increase in every outing so far. Al Horford was fantastic on both ends in Game 1 against the Bucks, and the Celtics had walls of defenders around the rim it seemed on every drive by Antetokounmpo.
INJURY WATCH: Celtics reserve big man Aron Baynes was limited to nine minutes in Game 1 with an ankle issue, but he’s hopeful of being out there for Game 2.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Milwaukee’s shooting. The Bucks’ starters shot 30 percent — 15 for 50 — in Game 1. For comparison’s sake, Boston guard Kyrie Irving was 12 for 21 by himself.
PRESSURE IS ON: No question, the Bucks. A team that rolled to 60 wins and swept through the first round is facing its biggest adverse moment of the season. Title-contending teams shrug off Game 1 losses, and that’s what the Bucks must do Tuesday.
ROCKETS AT WARRIORS
Warriors lead 1-0. Game 2, 10:30 p.m. EDT, TNT
NEED TO KNOW: Houston hasn’t lost consecutive games in more than two months, winning each of its last six games following a defeat. And they’ve already won at Oracle Arena twice this season, so the Rockets will be confident — probably even moreso now that they believe non-calls helped the Warriors in Game 1.
INJURY WATCH: Golden State guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson played through gimpy ankles in Game 1; they shot a combined 10 for 25, and it was only the second time all season where both played, neither had more than five field goals and the Warriors won anyway.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Houston guard Chris Paul. He scored 17 points in Game 1, got ejected late for picking up a second technical — but what might trouble the Rockets is he only took nine shots in 36 minutes. If he’s more aggressive in Game 2 that could help Harden (who took 28 shots) get even cleaner looks.
PRESSURE IS ON: The referees. They’ll know that every call will be met with probably more scorn and disbelief than usual after the way the Rockets were angered in Game 1. Landing areas on 3-point tries will be a point of emphasis, for obvious reasons.