The Milwaukee Bucks mark the fourth and final struggling Eastern Conference franchise the Blazers play this trip, following victories in Boston, Toronto and Brooklyn in the last week. Though all four teams are facing varying degrees of disarray this early season, the Bucks might be experiencing the most difficulty of the bunch thus far.
This past Summer, Bucks owner Herb Kohl and GM John Hammond were committed to making a run at the playoffs this season following the trade of Brandon Jennings and the free-agent loss of Monta Ellis after both guards had fairly inefficient and inconsistent stints in Milwaukee.
Center Larry Sanders -- an excellent shot-blocker, defender and solid rebounder -- was inked to a four-year, $44 million extension. Guards O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour, forwards Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino and center Zaza Pachulia were all traded for or signed in the 2013 offseason. These acquisitions were brought in to surround promising young Bucks John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova, two forwards with different skill sets -- Henson does most of his work in the paint, while Ilyasova is more of a jump-shooter, hitting over 44 percent of his three-pointers in each of the last two seasons.
Instead of coming out of the gate strong and ready to rise above the clouded lower-half of the Eastern Conference, the Bucks have found themselves decimated by injuries and relying on a stitched-together lineup that has still yet to see its preseason projected starters play a single game together.
The result is a 2-7 record that has Milwaukee fans -- like so many other NBA fanbases -- already salivating at the prospect of landing a lottery pick in the upcoming draft.
Injuries are, at some point in the season or another, an issue for every NBA team. That said, the Bucks really are experiencing a Nets-like injury bug nine games into their 2013-14 campaign. Delfino and Sanders won't play tonight. Knight is doubtful, Pachulia and Neal are questionable and Ilyasova and Butler are probable, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
It's difficult to get a read on a team that has so many lineup issues, but we do know a few things early: the Bucks are bad at everything offensively besides hitting free-throws and three-pointers, where they're actually a top-five team. The catch? They don't shoot many outside shots, nor do they get to the line well. Even though the Bucks may be able to excel in a few specialized areas, they don't really make an attempt to win games in those ways.
Milwaukee can't consistently score inside, push the pace, move the ball well or rebound. They turn the ball over often without forcing opposing teams to reciprocate. The Bucks sometimes play decent defense, with a few pesky defenders that can get some steals or blocks, but they can be scored on from anywhere on the court with relative ease, otherwise. Milwaukee's perimeter defenders have managed to keep opposing teams' three-point percentages relatively low and keep the pace of the game slow, though that hasn't been much of an advantage so far.
Also consider the Bucks are currently on the brink of losing their sixth-straight game tonight.
The Blazers, conversely, have won seven games in a row and will be looking to wrap up an undefeated four-game road trip with their eighth straight overall win against a reeling Milwaukee unit. The Bucks' only competitive game in their last five was a three-point loss to the 4-6 Orlando Magic a week ago.
Meanwhile, Portland has featured an outside attack that is among the best in the NBA, punctuated by guards Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard hitting 52.6 percent and and 40 percent from downtown, respectively, to go along with three-point shooting percentages of 44.4 and 40.3 from wings Dorell Wright and Nicolas Batum.
Though their outside shooting is adept, the Blazers haven't been able to score consistently from inside, nor have they been able to stop teams from scoring at the rim, either. They're one of the worst teams in the league in the middle at both ends of the court, yet they've still managed to win nine games due in large part to their excellent outside shooting, ball movement and rebounding prowess.
Blazers big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez have done well on the boards. Batum, Matthews and Lillard are all among the best rebounders in the league for their positions and forward Thomas Robinson comes off the bench and helps clean up the glass along with backup center Joel Freeland. Portland should again be able to use their multi-pronged rebounding strategy tonight, because the Bucks are one of the worst rebounding teams in the league.
Two nights ago against the Nets, the Blazers reversed their season-long trend of losing the points-in-the-paint battle by outscoring Brooklyn 40-30. Milwaukee should put up a similar fight tonight in the key, and Portland should again attack the middle because even with a healthy Pachulia, the Bucks don't stop teams from scoring near the hoop.
Just because the Blazers should look to collapse a defense by taking it to the rim more often doesn't mean they should abandon the outside shot, though. The three-pointer appears to be Portland's meal ticket this season, but more variety in their shot-selection and at least establishing some interior presence would be beneficial for the overall offense, especially if the outside shots aren't falling on a particular night. Inside scoring and penetration pulls perimeter defenders toward the middle, and the Blazers have capitalized on sagging defenses with a willingness to make the extra pass and subsequently hitting the open shots those passes provide.
The Bucks' most effective rim-protector tonight is starting power forward Ekpe Udoh. Henson's also a solid post-defender, but no one else in uniform for the Bucks is very intimidating down low. When Udoh and Henson are on the floor, Aldridge should stretch them out to the mid-range. When Ilyasova's guarding him, however, Aldridge should go hard to the hoop often, because Ilyasova is terrible at preventing points from being scored on him inside. Pachulia is not a shot-blocker, nor does he effectively alter shots. There are holes all over the inside of the Bucks defense, and Portland should take advantage of their opportunities at the rim.
Though Milwaukee is struggling on both ends of the court, they do have some firepower. Mayo and Neal have been excellent shooting from outside. Ilyasova and Henson have also found ways to score somewhat efficiently. Rookie guards Nate Wolters and Giannis Antetokounmpo have shown areas of individual promise and forward Khris Middleton is playing reasonably well with extended minutes. Even so, the Bucks would probably have to see an inspired performance from multiple players to take out the Blazers, even at home.
Similar to the last several games against middling Eastern Conference teams, this should be a "take care of business" type of affair for the Blazers. Without a full hand so far this season, the Bucks are a rudderless ship, suffering from multiple injuries and an offensive game plan that has strayed from the only things they do well -- outside shooting and converting at the line. Instead of going to Henson inside (where he's a respectable scorer) and blanketing the perimeter with deep threats -- the Bucks feature six good-to-great outside shooters -- Milwaukee relies on Mayo, Butler, Middleton and Wolters taking inefficient shots from within the arc, effectively making life easier for opposing defenses.
If for whatever reason Milwaukee coach Larry Drew decides to reverse course and motivate his three-point shooters to get more outside shots up while consistently getting the ball to Henson inside, the Bucks could hang around and make it a close ball game. If Milwaukee's current season trends hold true, however, they'll continue to play inefficiently and the Blazers should be able to control this game on the boards and from the outside, heading back to Portland following an undefeated Eastern Conference road trip and boasting an eight-game winning streak.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter