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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Milwaukee Bucks Preview

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The Blazers face their first test without injured center Robin Lopez tonight at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, who are without prized rookie Jabari Parker for the rest of the season.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee Bucks (13-12) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (19-6)
Wednesday, December 17
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Robin Lopez | Out for the Bucks: Jabari Parker, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson (day-to-day), Damien Inglis (day-to-day)
SBN Affiliate: Brew HoopTimmay's Viewing Guide | BE's 2014-15 Bucks Season Preview | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers play the Milwaukee Bucks at home tonight in a matchup that features both teams dealing with injuries to key players. Portland lost starting center Robin Lopez against the Spurs Monday night when he fractured his hand in two places and is expected to miss at least six weeks. Bucks rookie forward Jabari Parker tore the ACL in his left knee two days ago against the Suns and will miss the duration of the 2014-15 season.

Portland coach Terry Stotts jokingly avoided answering when asked by reporters who he would start at center tonight for the Blazers.

"It'll either be Chris (Kaman) or Joel (Freeland) or Thomas (Robinson) or Meyers (Leonard) or Dorell (Wright)," Stotts said with a laugh after Blazers practice on Tuesday.

Stotts later downplayed the importance of who would get the start at center, as Mike Richman of The Oregonian reports:

"It's probably not about the starting five. It's more about managing a game, bench rotation, keeping players fresh for the second half," Stotts said. "I think there's a lot of factors not just what's the best unit on the floor to start the game."

Dave Deckard wrote about the ramifications of Lopez' injury to Stotts' playing rotation in his analysis of the Spurs game:

Don't be surprised if the Blazers end up preserving Kaman's bench role, just with larger minutes. He's a huge key to the second-unit offense. Take him out of the equation and they've reverted to last season's scoring power...which ain't much. Look for the coaching staff to consider Leonard or Freeland starting, Kaman playing when it matters most.

The most logical fit to start at center figures to be the 6-foot-10 Freeland, who played most of his minutes last year as Lopez' backup. This year, the majority of Freeland's playing time has come with Kaman next to him up front, making him more of a power forward, at least on paper.

Starting Freeland would keep Kaman's important role as a second-unit scorer intact and would allow Stotts to have a willing low-post defender next to forward LaMarcus Aldridge to start the game.

Stotts could also start Leonard in the middle, though much of his early season success came as a stretch-four and he lacks the defensive awareness of Freeland. If Aldridge is moved to center -- a position he prefers not to play -- Robinson could get the start at power forward while preserving the current bench rotation, but that would force Aldridge to be the defensive anchor, a position he's likely not suited for.

No matter what happens, Lopez' role as Portland's catch-all rim-protector won't be easily filled, and it's going to take some serious rotation juggling by Stotts to find the right amount of minutes for Freeland, Robinson, Leonard and Kaman.

Fortunately for the Blazers, they'll get to test run their makeshift frontcourt lineup against the Bucks, a team that starts the offensively inept Larry Sanders at center. Milwaukee is dealing with injuries not only to Parker but also many of its bigs.

Power forward Ersan Ilyasova is out and big man John Henson is just now available after missing the last three weeks. Forwards Johnny O'Bryant and Damien Inglis -- both rookies -- haven't played all season and were just made active. Sanders, center Zaza Pachulia and 6-foot-7 power forward Khris Middleton are the only healthy bigs who have been available in the rotation recently for coach Jason Kidd.

The Bucks have made 50 percent of their shots the last five games, averaging almost 104 points a night in that span. They've also shot 40.5 percent from deep the last couple weeks, good for No. 3 in the NBA. Milwaukee has attempted a league-low 77.2 shots a game in that time, though, and the Bucks don't pass particularly well and struggle with turnovers

Point guard Brandon Knight is ostensibly the lead-man offensively now, as he was already leading the team in shot attempts the last five games with 12.4 per outing. He's a capable penetrator with a decent floater who sometimes struggles to finish at the rim. Knight's midrange jumper has looked abysmal recently, and though he's hit 39.6 percent of his threes on the season, that's down to 33.3 percent the last five games. His passing pedigree hasn't caught up to his individual scoring ability, either, and Knight isn't the best distributing point guard at this point in his young career.

Guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 6-foot-11, can play a handful of positions and will likely start tonight on the wing, unless Kidd opts to bump him into Parker's starting position at power forward. Antetokounmpo takes the majority of his shots point-blank at the rim, where he's made 70 percent of them the last five games. His jumper is shaky and he has no outside game to speak of yet, but his scoring inside should offset at least a portion of the points lost with Parker shelved for the year.

Starting guard O.J. Mayo hasn't shot well all year, and considering how many fouls he's picked up the last five games -- 3.4 a night in 20.6 minutes -- he has a hard time staying on the court. Sanders has the same issue, fouling 3.2 times in under 20 minutes a game. When he's in, Sanders shoots exclusively right at the basket, where he's a pretty good finisher with a very limited skillset.

Milwaukee has had one of the most productive benches in the NBA this year, though that may change as Middleton -- a great jumpshooter who's nailed 50 percent of his threes the last five games -- will likely shift into the starting lineup.

Pachulia makes over half his shots, operating inside for about half his attempts and stepping out for elbow jumpers occasionally. Guards Jerryd Bayless and Kendall Marshall have developed a backcourt chemistry off the bench. Both have been scorching from the floor the last five games, each shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 60 percent from deep. Marshall is also probably the Bucks' best passer. Guard Jared Dudley hasn't shot well this year in limited attempts but he does a little bit of everything off the bench.

Milwaukee's defense, which is opportunistic and aggressive -- often to a fault -- forces a ton of turnovers that lead to fast break points. On the other side of the coin, however, the Bucks' gambling gets them burned often, and they're not particularly effective at defending opposing shooters.

Grantland.com's Zach Lowe explained Milwaukee's defensive strategies last week in a must-read article for any Bucks fan:

...the Bucks play an aggressive defensive style in which every player must cover a ton of ground. Kidd and Sean Sweeney, his defensive coordinator, want opposing ball handlers to see extra help defenders clogging the lane from almost the moment they catch the ball. Run any two-man action, like a simple high pick-and-roll, and your point guard should see a third Milwaukee defender at the foul line early — ready to bump the rolling big man.

He continues:

Overloading one side of the floor leaves the other side bare, and the Bucks are vulnerable to smart passing teams that can swing the ball ahead of Milwaukee’s rotating defenders. But that’s the point: Kidd is banking on the Bucks’ wing players being long and athletic enough to help inside and rush back out in time to thwart any open shot.

The Blazers are generally thought of as a team that can break down opposing defenses with crisp, consistent passing. However, Portland's offense has stalled a bit lately and, according to NBA.com, the Blazers are No. 22 in the league the last five games in percentage of assisted field goals. They're sitting at 97.8 points per game the last five while shooting 45.5 percent from the floor and 37.4 percent from outside. The three-point shooting is there, but the ball movement that has come to define the offense for many Blazers fans is lacking right now, and it's that ability to pass that can punish an aggressive defense like that of the Bucks.

Guard Damian Lillard has been up-and-down offensively the last several games, generally finishing at the rim more consistently but seeing the production from his midrange and outside shots tail off a bit. If Portland is moving the ball well tonight, he'll get plenty of looks from from deep.

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has attempted just over half his shots from the midrange the last five games, converting 35.2 percent of them. In one of his favorite spots near the left block, though, he's shooting 47.1 percent in that time. Aldridge has made half his attempts at the rim the last couple weeks and should have an easier path to scoring tonight, considering how banged-up the Bucks' frontcourt is.

Guard Wesley Matthews is back to scoring efficiently again, though he's doing so in slightly fewer attempts recently. He's made over half his field goals the last five games and 43.3 percent of his threes. Matthews is particularly dangerous from the corners, and, like Lillard, should get the opportunity to launch some open three-pointers tonight if the Blazers' can capitalize on Milwaukee's young defense, which is allowing opposing teams to shoot a league-high 27.4 three-point attempts per game the last five.

Forward Nicolas Batum hasn't strung together consecutive solid shooting nights in weeks, going 36.4 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from deep his last five outings. He has managed to be an effective distributor in that time, however, and is still an important factor in Stotts' offense even if he's not sinking his own shots.

Kaman has made over half his field goal tries the last several games and appears to be getting back into early-season form after a recent slump. With Lopez out, Kaman's ambidextrous, soft touch around the rim and his ability to score down low with a variety of pump-fakes will be as important as ever.

Guard Steve Blake didn't have his best outing against the Spurs on Monday, but he's a sure-handed veteran who initiates the offense and hits the occasional open three. Reserve wing Allen Crabbe has gotten up very limited attempts but has hit over three-quarters of his shots the last five games and 57.1 percent of his threes. Backup guard CJ McCollum should be available for Stotts tonight after sitting several weeks, and it's unclear how that will affect Crabbe's minutes going forward. At this point, Crabbe looks like the more reliable player, but McCollum can create more of his own offense and is the better ballhandler of the two. Freeland will almost certainly see a spike in playing time and may even get the start in place of Lopez in the middle, but likely won't see a huge increase in shot attempts as he rarely looks for his own shot.

Leonard and Robinson could get off the bench more going forward, and neither has been able to play much more than garbage time recently. Robinson had an energetic nine minutes Monday against the Spurs, hitting both of his field goal tries and bringing in three rebounds while turning the ball over twice and collecting two fouls.

Portland's defense has allowed just 94.2 points per game the last five (No. 6 in the NBA) while holding opponents to 42.1 percent from the floor (No. 4) and 25.3 percent from outside (No. 1). The Blazers don't force a lot of turnovers and have sent teams to the line fairly often lately, but they play the passing lanes well and prevent teams from attempting many threes.

With Lopez out -- Portland's elite rim-protector in the middle -- it remains to be seen if Stotts will continue running teams off the three-point line as aggressively as he had been. Knight, Bayless and Antetokounmpo can all get into the paint, and without Lopez hanging back to erase mistakes, Stotts might want to ease the burden of defending the basket for Aldridge, Kaman, Freeland and/or Leonard.

The Bucks are good rebounders on the offensive side but struggle to corral opponents' misses with any consistency, allowing plenty of second-chance opportunities. Lopez' massive frame takes up space down low and his ability to box out effectively allows his teammates to contribute more in the rebounding department, even though his stats don't necessarily reflect that. Without him, Aldridge, Kaman, Freeland and Robinson will be called upon to buoy the Blazers on the glass, and whichever backup big shows the most discipline on defense and on the boards will likely have the direct track to more minutes in Lopez' absence.

Though this is far from a guaranteed win under any circumstances, Portland is fortunate to get a "tune-up" game tonight to test a shortened frontcourt rotation against a weakened opponent. The Blazers play four straight road games versus the Spurs, Pelicans, Rockets and Thunder starting Friday, and will look to pick up some momentum tonight against Milwaukee before hitting the road.

If the Blazers can move the ball well, hit open threes and not allow the Bucks to create easy transition points off turnovers, they should be able to pick up the win. However, they will be tasked with finding a way to defend the rim consistently with Lopez sidelined, and Milwaukee has enough youth and athleticism to get into the paint and put the Blazers' defense on its heels in this matchup of Portland's veteran execution against the effort and energy of the Bucks.

-- Chris Lucia | bedgecast@gmail.com | Twitter

Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: