In a Nutshell
The Blazers overcome a horrific first quarter behind the inspired play of LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews, tying the Bucks in knots with stiff interior defense and converting enough shots to win.
From the opening minutes of this game the Blazers seemed hell-bent on turning in another disastrous performance. They weren't over-matched as much as brain-dead.
Example: In the Game Preview we told you that each Buck player had more or less one major offensive strength. You don't have to be Einstein to figure out that the secret to stopping them is to rob each individual of their pet scoring method, making them the equivalent of Miley Cyrus singing opera. Enter Carlos Delfino. What does Delfino do? He shoots from distance. He took 27 threes in Milwaukee's first two games. Does he post? No. Does he dribble? No. Can he make fancy spin moves and get into the lane? No. So what do the Blazers do? They leave him open for three made jumpers, two threes, in the first 5 minutes of the game. He's good, but he's not that good. Around Delfino we saw Gooden layups, Bogut rebound tips and deep post shots, and the ultimate frosting...Corey Maggette coming in and scoring like he was the reincarnation of Luol Deng.
Meanwhile on the offensive end it was feast or famine, minus the feast part. Portland either lofted mindless jumpers (all of which missed) or drove the teeth of the defense for a 1-on-3 layup (all of which missed) or just cut out the middle man and turned the ball over. The Blazers were down 14-2 after the first five. A brief flurry by Roy, Aldridge, and Miller mid-quarter broke the ice but it was still ugly. Nicolas Batum was at the eye of the ugly storm. He got yanked at the six-minute mark. Fortunately hometown boy Wesley Matthews reported like a thunderclap, running, dunking, creating defensive pressure, even hitting a three near the end of the period. Marcus Camby picked up his second foul with 3:55 remaining the period, though, which dimmed Portland's outlook further. Nevertheless, Matthews had snatched Portland away from the precipice and left the Blazers down only 8, 31-23, as the horn sounded.
Fortunately the second period saw the Blazers' upsurge continue. The show belonged to two men: Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge. Matthews had three layups and a three-pointer before five minutes had expired. Aldridge assisted on a couple of those layups and in turn was assisted by Matthews. More to the point, LMA beasted out on defense and the boards, a trend which would continue through the entire game. He seemed to be everywhere tonight: guarding straight up, helping out, cleaning glass, running...it was fantastic. The only area where Aldridge didn't shine was predictably his close-in, back-to-the-basket game. He looks so confident and in control with facing away from the bucket at 12-15 feet. At 3-4 feet every line of his body screams "junior high kid at the dance". But that was a minor blip on the radar tonight. The salient point is that the Blazers have little-to-no interior post presence right now so they only way they can avoid Jumperpalooza is to cut and move the ball. They did this in the second quarter, thus the layups and relatively high offensive efficiency. Meanwhile, following a brief Maggette run at the outset of the period, Portland finally figured out not to let Eminem rap, Jack Black do comedy, and Michael Bolton enter the mullet contest. With just a tad more effort and smarts on defense viewers were treated to Marshall Mathers doing Shakespeare, Black running a marathon, and Michael Bolton actually singing in the form of the Bucks offense. Portland scored 26 in the quarter, Milwaukee 18. The Blazers led by 2 at the break.
The third and fourth periods featured more of the same. Portland never let Milwaukee recover their scoring touch. The Blazers started rebounding. Aldridge continued his princely performance, bracketed by decisive scoring runs from Roy, Andre Miller, and Armon "officially changing my middle name to 'Freakin' now" Johnson. When the dust had settled the Blazers waltzed away with a 14-point win, 90-76
The most dramatic point was already emphasized above: move the ball and shots come closer, easier, and wider open. When the Blazers don't move the ball it's all outside. The Blazers also did a much better job getting back on defense tonight, particularly the starting guards who both ended up playing with energy. Milwaukee managed only 4 fast-break points on the evening. That makes Portland's game so much easier, if nothing else by giving them a larger margin for error. Roy and Miller also played as well together as we've seen all year, at least in part because Brandon made some sharp cuts and stayed involved even without the ball.
The point total for LaMarcus Aldridge isn't as gaudy as in the Chicago game. He only scored 14. But this was the best game I've seen LMA play in at least a year...far better than the 40-point effort last night. From beginning to end he was energetic, in motion, committed, and effective. He had 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, and 5 blocks, including some off of help rotations that his mobility has long promised. It was almost like hearing about the mythical City of Gold for years and then finally laying eyes on it. Very early on it looked like the team was trying to force the offense through him with poor results. But after that nothing looked forced. He didn't have to dominate the ball, he just dominated the space all around him, particularly on defense. He even joined Marcus Camby on the floor diving for a loose ball at one point. As long as he was standing, everyone was at his mercy. If he can play like that all season--complementary yet strikingly effective--this team is going to rocket forward. Long, loud standing ovation for LMA .
As good as LaMarcus was, that's how bad Nicolas Batum was tonight. As Mike Rice pointed out, he was responsible for many of the early-game defensive blunders. He was slow, unfocused, and his jumper was pure Andre Miller but without the chance of going in that Miller's has. After a couple of possessions he just went limp...passive...the last guy down the court on defense. He ended up playing only 14 minutes. I read the speculation today that he's getting the short end of the stick here but I will tell you flat-out that this kind of performance shows that he's not ready to be used properly. You can't misuse wet noodle. He's had good outings as well, no doubt. But if you're going to take a bigger role in a lineup featuring Roy, Aldridge, Miller, and eventually Greg Oden you're going to have to earn that role by bringing it hard every night...defensively, offensively, and everywhere in between. You have to make the coach play you and make your teammates feed you. Right now Batum is doing the exact opposite. It's still just potential until it's seen every night. I'm sure Nicolas will recover quickly though.
Fortunately Wesley Matthews came in and showed how it's done. He was aggressive from his first moment on the court, as the dunks and layups and stroked threes show. He wasn't perfect on defense but he was active and smart. He had 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 28 minutes. Now he has to show it when he's not in his hometown.
Despite early foul trouble--and you have to believe that getting 2 on him in the first quarter is near the top of every opponent's scouting plan--Marcus Camby still managed 13 rebounds and some nice defense in 20 minutes of play. Part of the story is how great he is in few minutes or many. The other part is how great Aldridge and Dante Cunningham did filling in during those other 28 minutes.
It's not often that Brandon Roy gets pushed this far down the list but he still had a nice game tonight, highlighted by 5 steals to go along with his 17 points. His defense looked as good as we've seen it this year. His continuity with the team did as well. He spent much of the game trying to get others involved. Still you could tell he wasn't going to let the Blazers lose this one. He pushed the gas in the middle quarters to ensure a lead and then let others have their shots.
I really liked Andre Miller's game tonight as well. He seldom went on his own, he had some nifty passes, he hustled both ways, he didn't lose his man defensively, he brought the same swagger and timing as Roy, and he hit 5 of his 10 attempts (12 points, 5 assists). It was a solid game without too much flash but without any gaffes. That's what the Blazers need most nights, combined with his potential to occasionally take over and bail them out. Also every time the Blazers try to replace 'Dre with Roy, Matthews, or Rudy Fernandez you see the difference in the offense clearly.
Dante Cunningham made the most of his minutes, shooting 6-8, providing serious hustle, grabbing 6 boards, scoring 12, and holding off bigger guys for 28 minutes. I loved this game because you only noticed good things about Dante...there was no drawback to his scramble and bump. He helped Portland's second unit totally outclass the Bucks.
Rudy Fernandez had a so-so outing, again missing his threes (1-4, the only shots he took) but running well, grabbing a steal, and making a couple of nifty passes. Rudy's at a baseline now where he's a decent player to have in the game no matter what, morphing into a really good asset when he's hitting shots.
Armon Johnson was six kinds of sick tonight. He took all of his mad driving offense from last night's game and added in some running, crystal-pure shooting, and whiz-bang passing (including this). He defended well. He even talked trash to Brandon Jennings at one point. The guy has confidence to burn. Check out the stat line: perfect 4-4 from the floor, perfect 2-2 from distance, 5 assists, 1 turnover, 2 rebounds, 10 points in 22 minutes. Before you hop on the speeding gravy train (keeping in mind that I've been singing the guy's praises since Summer League so I'm laying track as we speak) realize that this was a nice matchup for him. He's not going to be able to perform this way against every point guard. Still...what a night.
Stats of the Night
- Brandon Jennings 8 points on 2-7 shooting, 0-5 from distance
- Blazers no offensive rebounds at the half, 10 for the game
- Milwaukee only 32 points in the paint
- Blazers only 9 free throws and 24 threes hoisted (7 made). Good thing the defense was good and the two-point percentage was really high.
- After a great first period Milwaukee finishes 27-72 from the field for 37.5%. Defense.
Odd Notes and Links
Jersey Contest Scoreboard (You can access individual game results, including the results from this one, via the pull-down menu at the bottom of the page.)
Parting Thought #1: 4-1 overall and 3-1 on this trip is dang good. Wooot!
Parting Thought #2: The Bucks had a moment of silence for Maurice Lucas tonight. Afterwards a few folks piped up with the "Luuuuuke!" call. I assume this goes without saying, but just in case...if you want to pay tribute to the guy the best way would be to make that call last about 10 minutes when Portland does the same tribute on Thursday night. After all, Blazer fans booed refs that long in a game against Utah last year. This is far more important. If you're going to that game, make it happen.