The Portland Trail Blazers took their first step without Robin Lopez tonight, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 104-97. The game was tight into the fourth quarter but the undermanned, out-sized Bucks eventually succumbed to Portland's big men and a dashing display of offense by Damian Lillard.
The moment Lopez fractured his hand in Portland's last game against the Spurs, speculation flew. How would the Blazers replace him? Chris Kaman's excellence this season is well-chronicled, but removing him from the second unit would leave the Blazer reserves anemic. Joel Freeland has earned the lion's share of Portland's deep-bench minutes this year, performing admirably. He'd be the obvious choice aside from Kaman. But Meyers Leonard had a fine outing in his last start. Could the Blazers interchange Aldridge and Leonard between the 4 and 5 spots, creating a more dynamic offense? Which sub would get their crack at the starting lineup?
This being Portland, Terry Stotts went with Thomas Robinson.
You heard me. Thomas Robinson.
As it turned out, T-Rob gave the Blazers all of Lopez's offensive rebounding ability while adding a new wrinkle to the defense. He and Aldridge switched positions on either end of the floor, guarding the matchups that made the most sense. Eventually the Blazers would end up using their Robinson-aided mobility to switch nearly every screen they saw, forcing the Bucks to stay outside and away from the vulnerable lane area. The strategy worked. Overcoming occasional blunders, Robinson provided 16 rebounds and 15 opportunity-based points, leaving the Blazers in fine fettle despite their missing center.
Not that the game was easy. The Bucks made hash out of Portland in the first period, collecting a 25-18 lead by scoring from mid-range and the key. The Blazers turned over the ball like it was buttered and scarcely did better when they retained it, shooting a paltry 31%. Three-pointers and offensive rebounds kept Portland alive, but they didn't look too healthy.
The offense continued to sputter through most of the second quarter, offensive rebounds again providing relief. But Milwaukee obligingly took their place in the turnover parade, keeping their output low. Damian Lillard sizzled through the middle part of the period. The Bucks could cover the drive or the triple, but not both at the same time. As a result, Lillard feasted.
The Blazers had already pulled even at 41-all when their biggest break of the game happened. Giannis Antetokounmpo twisted his ankle on a layup with 15 seconds remaining in the half. He would not return to the game. Portland took a 43-41 lead into intermission.
The second half provided a scoring bonanza compared to the first. The Blazers employed their switching defense. The Bucks made them pay by draining three-pointers over slower defenders. But Milwaukee couldn't get in the lane and had no cavalry to call from the bench. When their shooters sat (or just got tired), Portland's strategy paid off big-time. As the third period changed to the fourth, the Blazers started rebounding ugly Milwaukee misses, flinging the ball upcourt, then hitting open shots against a scrambling defense. Absent Antetokounmpo, the Bucks' best 1-on-1 scoring option was Jerryd Bayless, but his offense ended up killing everybody else's. Robinson and Aldridge began beating up on their confused, less-athletic, and rapidly-tiring counterparts. The Blazers took command of the glass. At that point the game flew out of Milwaukee's reach. A 36-point fourth quarter allowed the Blazers to streak past the doughty Bucks for the final 104-97 victory.
The Bucks put up a good fight. The Blazers gave them a better fight back. Someday Portland might face a situation that rattles them, but it sure didn't happen tonight...even without Lopez, even with a bit of discontinuity, even with the Bucks nipping at their heels all night.
Damian Lillard had a HUGE game, even beyond the impressive numbers (29 points, 10-18 shooting, 7 assists). With the outcome still teetering in the balance during the middle quarters, Lillard took the Bucks to school. They couldn't stop him. They couldn't slow him. He might as well have been wearing a stealth uniform instead of Portland's pajama-looking sleeved shirt, baggy shorts combo. The Bucks sent double-teams after Aldridge all night and Lillard made them pay with interest.
Portland's Lopez-less defensive approach was sound, but Milwaukee may not be the best test case for its long-term appeal. The Bucks couldn't take advantage of the constant mismatches that screening earned them. San Antonio and Oklahoma City won't be as reticent. Nor will they be as likely to allow the Blazers rebounding domination. Robinson slipped through cracks because of the attention Aldridge and Lillard drew. If the opposing team can put a body on him, his effectiveness will go down and his faults show more.
But those are other games. For tonight, Robinson did great, the Blazers played smartly, and another win goes in the books.
Fun With Numbers
--Portland nabbed 16 offensive rebounds, Milwaukee 5. The Blazers won the overall rebounding battle 52-32.
--Antetokounmpo was on his way to a pretty good game when he went down. 10 points in 18 minutes on 4-7 shooting with 6 rebounds.
--The Blazers and Bucks hit the same number of threes and their free throw makes differed only by 1. Milwaukee actually shot better from the field (48%-47%) and the arc (37%-30%). The big difference: 87 shots attempted by Portland to 77 by Milwaukee. Extra possessions rock.
--The Blazers played at a pretty brisk tempo during stretches, especially with the second unit. Still, they netted only 2 fast break points.
--The Blazers' bench shot a gruesome 8-23 tonight.
Despite drawing extra defensive attention, LaMarcus Aldridge shot 10-19 for 23 points plus 15 rebounds, 6 offensive. You could see the story of the game unfold in slow motion. Aldridge gets harassed in the early quarters, then Lillard starts to explode. As the defense starts focusing on Dame...here comes LaMarcus rebounding his way to glory.
We gave you Damian Lillard's 29 points and 7 assists. He added 2 steals and 4 turnovers. His defense looked shaky until the Blazers started to switch. Then the Bucks ended up testing bigger defenders instead of the guards.
Thomas Robinson shot 5-8 with the aforementioned 15 points and 16 rebounds. If we haven't praised him enough, consider him praised even more with the re-mentioned. He did everything the Blazers could have hoped for, especially when the floor opened up in the fourth. Troubling signs remained, though. He had trouble catching and passing the ball, earning 4 turnovers. His shot selection was decent until it wasn't. The Blazers' offense looked different with Robinson in there. Aside from the offensive rebounding opportunities, it wasn't for the better. One of the amusing side-stories of the evening was Milwaukee playing Hack-a-TRob for possession in the fourth. He hit 5 of 15 free throw attempts. This was a huge performance for Robinson. A sustainable performance? We'll have to see.
Wesley Matthews played efficiently down low but hit only 1-4 triples for 11 points on 5-8 shooting. Once again Portland's offense seems to flow towards Matthews or towards Nicolas Batum, but seldom both.
Batum's offensive contributions were limited to 6 assists and a whole slew of missed shots. His attempts weren't bad; they just didn't hit. It was more pronounced tonight than usual. 3-11, 8 points. The Blazers could use a little more from Nicolas in the coming weeks.
Speaking of needing more...Chris Kaman went 3-12 for 6 points and 3 rebounds in 18 minutes. Defenses are starting to respect him more. Or maybe they're just interested in seeing if anybody else off Portland's bench is going to score.
Steve Blake had an off night in almost every way, shooting 1-5 for 3 points and 4 assists in 19 minutes. He got forced in to taking un-Blake-like shots.
CJ McCollum returned to action and put on a nice performance in fits and starts. He had 3 assists in 14 minutes.
Allen Crabbe practically zeroed out his 8-minute stat line.
Joel Freeland fans can take consolation in his 6-rebound, 6-point, 13 minute tour of duty. He didn't put up the same stats as Robinson but he still came through. The Blazers look pretty secure with Joel in there nowadays.
Here's your Boxscore.
The Instant Recap has videos and reaction from around the web.
BrewHoop will not be happy about seeing their bright, young star exit this game but they can take consolation in having one of the 2-3 best website names around.
Our In-Arena Recap covers fear for Nicolas Batum, joy over Thomas Robinson, and blimps.
Please help underprivileged youth, children, and chaperons see Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns by contributing tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here. Please help with a ticket or two (or 10!) if you can.