Earlier in the season it seemed like the Portland Trail Blazers couldn't turn around without hitting back-to-back games on the schedule. Pick your ill result: listless play, fatigue, nagging injury, exposing a bench that should be heard and not seen. Then the Blazers got a run of homestands and short road trips. Back-to-backs seemed a distant, and bad, memory. Until this week, that is. Fresh off a loss in Philadelphia last night the Blazers draw the Milwaukee Bucks this evening, the first of three Eastern Conference playoff teams Portland will face over the next four nights.
The Bucks are one of those site-neutral teams, compiling the same record on the road as at home. This is good when, say, you're 19-7 in each department. Milwaukee is 16-16 on the road but only 17-16 at home. Fittingly they're 3-3 in their last 6 games. Over the last month they've pretty much beaten the teams you'd expect them to, also losing to the team you'd expect them to. In most every way they're...average.
"Average" is not what the Bucks were shooting for this year, however. They traded away non-franchise center Andrew Bogut for Golden State scorer Monta Ellis. At 20 points and 6 assists per game Ellis is producing but he doesn't shoot threes well nor does he draw foul shots. He needs plenty of touches to get his points. His backcourt mate Brandon Jennings (18 ppg and 7 assists) also needs touches. He's a better percentage shooter from the arc but often wears beer goggles when he's checking out potential shots. As a counterpoint to this usage-intensive duo the Bucks brought in J.J. Redick mid-season. Redick scores without dominating the ball but his critical three-point percentage has dipped from 38% to a comparatively disastrous 33% since joining the Bucks.
Milwaukee's frontcourt centers around 6'11" Larry Sanders who has emerged as one of the premier defending, rebounding middle men in the league. He doesn't touch the ball much on offense outside of offensive rebounds but when he does catch he converts. Power forward Ersan Ilyasova started the season rough but has come on strong in the last month. Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute has been injured and is day-to-day. Veteran Marquis Daniels takes his spot in the starting lineup for now.
In theory the Bucks have a capable bench featuring names like Mike Dunleavy, Samuel Delambert, Drew Gooden, and Gustavo Ayon in addition to Redick. In practice all the playing time has gone to Redick, Dunleavy, and second-year forward Ekpe Udoh. Even roster-shortening injuries haven't changed that trend.
The Bucks like to score in the lane. When they can't get there the quality of their jumpers depends on the night. They can get hot or go really cold. Playing against them when they're clicking is like walking on a bed of nails. No matter where you step, somebody's going to poke you. When they're off, though, it's almost a circus as they hoist ever-more improbable shots. Grab some popcorn and watch them implode.
Milwaukee doesn't have much to rely on when the offense is going south. Their defense is passable as long as they can get downcourt and set. But those guards allow way too many transition buckets and way too much penetration. If you stand still against them--lofting jumpers or running slow iso post plays--they'll prove adequate. But if you run and move the ball they won't stay in front of you. Neither will they help out their big man much. They do have an annoying propensity for forcing turnovers and they're a good shot-blocking team. Defensive rebounding is not their strong point.
In other words, as long as the game is fun and easy for them the Bucks will excel. Make them work hard, execute boring fundamentals (like rotating and boxing out), play as a team and you've found their weak spot. They depend on those starting guards having huge nights, a few other players scoring in the wake of a broken defense, and Sanders working like a madman on the other end. Keep their heroics down and force the guards to defend religiously and you'll probably have a good night against them.
Fatigue will play a critical role in this matchup, meaning Portland's bench players could prove more pivotal than the Blazers would prefer. If ever there were a week to show what (if anything) those young reserves have learned this year, this would be it. Damian Lillard could also be a pivot point. He's capable of torching the Bucks but he's also capable of getting torched. Letting one of the Milwaukee guards go off would be more beneficial to them than having Lillard go off would be to the Blazers. Whatever matchup Damian draws, he needs to win it. Aldridge vs. Ilyasova is another key. Ilyasova destroyed the Blazers in the first meeting between these teams, propelling the Bucks to a victory on Portland's home court. LaMarcus cannot afford to lose that matchup again. Both players have had magnificent weeks so the duel should be fun to watch.
This game doesn't inspire hope but the Bucks are no super-team. In a vacuum the Blazers could give them a run every time. Fighting the Bucks and the environment is a tall order, though. With Chicago, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City on the horizon, a win would go down smooth. Sadly, it's more likely the Blazers will be left with bitter beer face and a pounding headache in the morning.
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