USA TODAY Sports
The Portland Trail Blazers are on a losing streak. The Milwaukee Bucks set the bar exactly in the middle. Will the Blazers be able to clear this hurdle and resume their winning ways? Find out what will help them most, and what could stop them, right here.
Portlanders will get a glimpse of one of the most interesting teams in the league as the Milwaukee Bucks come to town in a game beginning at 7:00 p.m. Pacific and televised locally on KGW TV.
Note that "interesting" is distinct from "good" here. Mind you, the Bucks aren't bad. They sit at 20-18 on the year with identical 10-9 records at home and on the road, good for 7th position in the Eastern Conference. They'll almost certainly remain a playoff team. But the real attraction in watching the Bucks is the wonderfully weird Frankenstein way in which they've been constructed. Every time they tip I feel the urge to scream, "It's ALIVE!!!"
Their starting backcourt consists of two undersized maybe-sorta-could-be point guards both known for their scoring. Brandon Jennings has been a Buck his whole career. He's not a great shooter, he's just great at getting his shots up. He's averaging 18 a game on 41% shooting with 6 assists per game. His partner Monta Ellis, refugee from Golden State, averages 19 points on 40% shooting with 5 assists per game. The big difference between Ellis now and at the height of his production is his nose-diving three-point percentage (25% this season). Both are mediocre defenders at best. Both rely on the jump shot as their primary way of scoring. In most ways they're similar: high-volume, low-production, point-accumulating jump shooters.
Then you have one of last year's better, unheralded power forwards in Ersan Ilyasova. The guy did a little of everything and did it well. He has range out to three-point line. He rebounds. He's a decent defender. With a 20+ PER, 58% true shooting percentage, and an offensive rating through the roof the guy looked like he could break out big time. Then he signed a new contract. Now his shooting percentage is down to 40% from last year's 49%. His rebounding, three-point percentage, and points per minute stats are in the toilet. Last year's near-star now looks slightly below average. Ex-coach Scott Skiles reduced his minutes and sent him to the bench. He's been slowly resuscitated now that Skiles is gone, but this is just a weird season for him.
Meanwhile, while Blazers fans mull over the possibility of finding one legit 7-footer, the Bucks have stocked up. Larry Sanders is a good defender, a shot-blocker, and handles his few shot attempts well. Samuel Delambert is the rebounder-shot-blocking veteran off the bench. The Bucks aren't even using ex-Trail Blazer Joel Przybilla (errr...perhaps for good reason). No matter what else goes right or wrong in a game, the Bucks can count on their men in the middle to perform their limited tasks well.
Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has been a nice energy/glue guy over the years. The problem this year is that, like Ilyasova, LRMaM's offensive production has tanked. His shooting percentages are way down, rebounds have slipped as well. Turnovers are up. For a quiet contributor on the borders of average to begin with, this is an issue. Dependability sauced with occasional opportunism have been his hallmarks. Not so much this season.
Reserve point guard Beno Udrih hasn't had any such problems. He's having a career year (and is one of the players I've thought would make a good Blazer for years). Small forward Mike Dunleavy is getting plenty of minutes and is shooting well. Shooting guard Marquis Daniels has never fulfilled his promise, having designs on offensive dominance without the acumen to actually get there. The bench--outside of the excellent Udrih--isn't bad as much as mercurial. Some nights they're going to spark and give you a great game. Other nights they're half there, sometimes not at all. Did we mention the Bucks are 20-18 with identical 10-9 records at home and on the road?
The Bucks like to break and force turnovers. They're not bad offensive rebounders either. All of that adds up to the extra possessions on which they depend to make up for their overall lack of field goal shooting. They're bad from the field, bad from the arc, and not so great at drawing fouls. They need a lot of tries to get points on the board. The big dangers in the Milwaukee offense are that they'll run for easy points or get streaky hot. You can't do much when the latter happens but the Blazers would be well-served by getting back in transition to prevent the former.
Unfortunately for the Bucks they give up to their opponents everything they win in transition and more. Neither are they great paint defenders as a team. Their defense gets better the farther you move away from the bucket, not necessarily because their smalls are great individual defenders but because they can close quickly and because by definition shooting deep means you let their defenders stay in front of you instead of just blowing past them. When you drive on those perimeter defenders you're going to get a good look or foul shots. As mentioned, the Bucks love to force turnovers. Their gambling ways often take them away from the boards, though. Their defensive rebounding is poor.
The Blazers should be reading this tableau and coming up with some pretty clear conclusions. Get back on "D", make the Bucks settle for the jump shots they love. On the other end drive past them, create chaos, and get your jumpers off of penetration instead of just lofting them. Hit the offensive rebounds hard. As long as you also take care of the ball you'll get more quality shots than they will and the game is yours. It's not rocket surgery. Then again, the Blazers have come out flat and careless in plenty of games lately. Let the Bucks get a head of steam and they do have enough offensive talent to take this game. Their scoring comes in fits and starts but when it comes, it comes hard.
This is another game that should be in Portland's control. Whether they're willing to seize it is another matter. They're already in a skid. Dropping a game to the Bucks at home would turn that skid into a free-fall. The ship needs righting. We'll see if the Blazers can manage to do it.
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