Here's the question if you're a Trail Blazers fan: How many more games like this can you take before you stop buying into the faux-excitement?
The scoreboard tonight said 110-104, Milwaukee. It was a close game, right? Like losing 88-93 to Cleveland was close and losing 111-115 to Denver in overtime was close and going down 83-87 to the Thunder was close and finishing behind the Warriors 97-103 was close. You can look at it as regression to the mean. The Blazers had won more than their fair share of tight games before this losing streak. You can look at it as being almost there against some credible teams (and Cleveland too). You can point to great second-half comebacks in each of these games just falling short.
How often do we have to hear this story before we start questioning why the team is putting itself in the position of needing great comebacks in the first place...leaving themselves vulnerable to statistical correction or the lucky shot or a questionable call?
As you might gather, the Blazers came out flat again tonight. Actually, "flat" doesn't do it. The Bucks came out hunting the Blazers from the opening tap. The Blazers made like like Bambi's mom. One shot--in this case probably provided by Ersan Ilyasova somewhere in the first period--and it's all over.
The Blazers turned over the ball like it was pyramid-shaped. They let Milwaukee run out. 14 of the Bucks' 30 points in the first period came after turnovers. The only reason that stat doesn't look mind-numbing horrible is because Portland's defense was otherwise so porous that 14 doesn't quite make 50% of 30. That's called disguising your flaws. The aforementioned Ilyasova hit a variety of mid-to-long-range jumpers, adding insult to injury. When that wasn't happening Brandon Jennings began a night-long dismantling of Portland's defense. From the get-go Portland's smalls and bigs communicated like a recently-divorced couple on the defensive end. The result was weak, split double-teams and frequently-blown screen coverage. The interior rotations weren't any better, coming late if at all. The Bucks shot 32 free throws in this game. The Blazers also ended up with 32 so it wasn't a one-way street, but Milwaukee's interior defense was otherwise far superior to Portland's.
That nice Bucks interior "D", anchored by Larry Sanders, kept LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson frustrated all night. When either Portland big managed to get the ball in the lane--either off the dribble or via offensive rebounding--the Bucks smothered them. Sanders stayed in front and bothered the shot while 1 or 2 exterior defenders collapsed inward to prevent dribbling or anything fancy. The result was a bevy of forced, twisting attempts from 2 feet, most of which drew rim and no more. Aldridge did draw 10 foul shots but the Bucks muffled his offense otherwise.
Also on the offensive absentee list: Nicolas Batum. After a long string of games making his mark in one way or another, Batum was muted here, shooting 2-9 with 5 assists and 4 turnovers. His biggest contribution outside of 7 rebounds was a pretty second-half three-pointer. But the Blazers needed way more than one moment from him and way, way more than the couple moments they got from Aldridge.
While the forwards and Hickson got handled, Portland's starting guards tried to step up and fill in the gap. Damian Lillard took 21 shots tonight, Wesley Matthews 18. Together that's 39 of Portland's 81 shot attempts, just shy of half. This led to 47 points between them but they gave up 43 to their counterparts. Granted, not all of the Jennings-Ellis scoring was directly attributable to Portland's guards. The forwards were slow down the court and, as we said, the interior help just wasn't there. It's safe to say, though, that the Lillard-Matthews duo played like you'd have expected the Milwaukee guards to play: lots of shots, not a great percentage hit, not much defense.
Outside of Luke Babbitt Portland's bench barely played and barely contributed, except for the bad.
Now...the Blazers did make a big second-half comeback after their embarrassing 45-62 first half. As is their habit lately they fell behind by 20+ and then started charging when the opponent relaxed. They got some ball-movement going, got on a hot streak from three-point land...you know the routine. They even got an advantage when Sanders went brain-dead and got himself tossed by referee Danny Crawford for arguing a call with 3:08 remaining in the third. But all of that put together amounts to a high-wire act, desperate dashes near the end of quarters to make disaster look not so disastrous. With the margin for error so small the complete comeback is hard to achieve. In this case Jennings took matters into his own hands in the fourth, much as Kyrie Irving did in the Cavaliers game a couple days ago. 13 for Milwaukee's point guard in the final stanza was more than enough to cut short Portland's comeback.
At this point some folks will probably be thinking I'm being too harsh. Truth be told, even had the Blazers come back to win this game the lesson would have been the same. They just would have gotten lucky in avoiding the consequences. Once Portland let the Bucks run all over them in the first half, carrying out exactly the game plan they diagrammed en route to a 21-point lead, nothing good was going to happen here regardless of winning and losing. If the Blazers don't find a way to start games better they might as well start ticking off the "L's" right now. It's not just a matter of random cold shooting...what we're seeing is a total disintegration of team and individual effort early in games while opponents cavort all over the court. When you're tossing the ball right into the hands of the opponent, when you can't even dribble up the floor without coughing it up, when you can see guys come into the frame 3 seconds too late to make an attempt at a play...these aren't talent issues. There's a switch flipped off somewhere. Portland better find it before midway through the third period or they might as well not bother.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 20 off of the strength of 10-10 free throw shooting. He fired 5-12 from the field and got squashed inside. He did grab 14 rebounds, by far his strongest contribution of the evening. He was one of the chief culprits of Late Defense-Gate. Part of that may have been fatigue or effort, another part Ilyasova playing like an All-Star and needing to be watched constantly. Ilyasova certainly looked like the better power forward tonight.
Nicolas Batum shot 2-9 for 7 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 turnovers, and the overall impression of, "Where was he?"
J.J. Hickson had a fine statistical night with 5-10 shooting, 15 points, 12 rebounds. He wasn't able to keep the Milwaukee centers away from the rim when they defended, though, which caused all manner of problems.
Damian Lillard shot 9-21, 4-9 from distance (including a beautiful buzzer-beating three to end the third period), 5-6 from the foul line, dished 10 assists, and committed only 3 turnovers in his 42 minutes (which was good for this game). He clearly had the best game of any Blazer. Caveats: defense and defense. Oh, and defense. The Blazers need to help him almost every time down the floor on nights like this. That's not helping their own effort.
Wesley Matthews shot 8-18 but only 1-8 from the arc. He did have 2 steals and 4 assists, also 3 turnovers with his 21 points. Somebody needed to score and since the forwards weren't having any success, Matthews stepped up.
Luke Babbitt played 24 minutes and hit 3-8 three-pointers. The Bucks were leaving him mostly open--not closing quickly enough--so he took them. He scored 11 points tonight, which almost triples the combined output of the rest of the bench. That story was so sad it was almost comical. Coach Stotts kept putting different players in only to watch them all fall apart in one way or another. It was like trying to build a house of cards on a canoe in the ocean. The worst example was Nolan Smith, who had perhaps the worst 3 minutes of basketball anybody has ever seen. He committed 3 turnovers during that time, every one of them leading to easy breakaway points for the Bucks. It was like seeing a young pitcher come in and give up 4 home runs on 5 pitches. Not 5 at-bats, 5 pitches. You don't want to pull him because that's not representative of his ability and you don't want him to lose confidence, but on the other hand...man.
OK, so it's Washington at home on Monday. This is literally...honestly...truly the last (what you'd call) easy game for a month. After that you're looking at near-.500 teams, playoff contenders, elite squads, and Dallas on the road until the Blazers face Charlotte on March 4th. It would be nice if the Blazers could come out strong and win that Wizards game. In fact at this point it may be mandatory.
Timmay explains how we were in Soviet Russia tonight with his instant recap.
Brew Hoop will celebrate the road warriors and his starting guards combining for 8 steals.