Over the last few games, the Blazers have hung around and made furious comebacks. While they've lost, they've been in nearly every game during that stretch.
Sometimes, though, things get away and you can't scale the mountain again.
That's exactly what happened in Milwaukee, as the Blazers wrapped up their three-game road trip on a more sour note than planned.
It was obvious from the opening tip that Terry Stotts was concerned about the length of the Bucks. He made a few rotation changes to try and combat that in the first 12 minutes. The first was starting Meyers Leonard over Chris Kaman -- Leonard is much more fleet of foot and generally used his athleticism to his advantage. Additionally, CJ McCollum was the first guard off the bench for the Blazers, yet another change that was dictated by the Bucks' superior length.
Stotts had good reason to be concerned. The Bucks were extremely active in the passing lanes early and turned them into easy buckets on the other end. In the quarter, the Bucks forced seven turnovers, including five steals and three blocks. Portland's ball movement was lacking, double teams were overwhelming and it showed on the scoreboard. After one, the Bucks led the Trail Blazers, 27-15.
The second quarter started much the same as the first quarter ended. Portland continued to struggle with Milwaukee's pressure defense and didn't move the ball. Stotts tried so many lineups that the Blazers ended up playing 11 players in the first 17 minutes of the game. If it weren't for a few blown OJ Mayo layups, the Blazers could've easily been down 20.
The one thing the Blazers did have some success with, however, was backdoor cuts: Wesley Matthews, Kaman and LaMarcus Aldridge all managed to slip behind the aggressive Bucks defense for opportunities at the rim. The result wasn't necessarily points on the scoreboard, but it put the Bucks in the penalty for the final 6:00 of the half. More importantly, it put them on their heels.
The real turning point, though, came with 3:25 left in the half. With the Bucks seemingly winning every 50/50 ball of the evening, one Blazer miss squirted out to Damian Lillard who grabbed it, soared through the paint and packed one with ferocity, much to the delight of the Blazer fans on hand. The dunk had a clear impact on the game. Portland finished the half on a 17-5 run, forcing seven Milwaukee turnovers during that stretch. After mustering just 22 points in the first 17 minutes of the game, Portland scored 20 in the final eight minutes to cut the deficit at halftime to just three, 45-42.
Portland managed to spill some of the momentum from the end of the first half into the second. Nic Batum immediately hit a three pointer to open the half, then Wesley Matthew got one of his own after a Milwaukee bucket to briefly take the lead. After Matthews canned another triple -- coupled with some great hustle plays from T-Rob -- you thought that things were shifting back in the Blazers' favor.
Unfortunately for the road team, they couldn't sustain the early momentum. Things started to get helter skelter until Dorell Wright weathered the storm with back-to-back threes near the end of the quarter. However, that mini run didn't last. While Portland's shooting percentage slumped to under 37%, Milwaukee ended the quarter on a 9-2 run to extend their lead to 11, 76-65.
Once Milwaukee took a double digit lead into the fourth quarter, they never looked back. OJ Mayo scored five straight points for the Bucks, and the wheels started to fall off the Trail Blazers train. Between too many one-and-done possessions and some great offense by the Bucks' second unit (Mayo and Jerryd Bayless in particular), the Bucks pushed the lead to 20 points in the final period.
Though the Blazers managed to chip away at the lead, the Bucks coasted en route to a 95-88 victory.
The above synopsis of the game was the [extremely] long way of saying that the Blazers were confused and outplayed tonight. Portland was held to 37% shooting -- 29% from distance -- and turned the ball over 16 times. They were bullied, harassed and hounded all night on offense, and the confusion often leaked into giving up easy buckets on the other end. Though the Bucks may have committed a number of fouls (remember, Portland was in the penalty early in the second quarter), their aggression proved to be the main factor in the game.
What made the defensive effort by the Bucks so interesting was the fact that it wasn't necessarily strategic in nature. The double teams came at random moments, and players shooting the passing lanes were successful predominantly because of hustle. Credit the Bucks for that: even if it wasn't the most polished, it was effective.
The main takeaway here from the Blazer end is that they simply needed to do a better job with dealing with that defensive pressure. Admittedly, the Bucks are a different animal (no pun intended) than most of the teams in the league; their length causes matchup problems all over the court, which is why you saw Portland start Leonard in the first place. But both Aldridge and Lillard had difficulty handling the airtight lock Milwaukee defenders had all night. The Blazers managed to temporarily flip the script by using backdoor cuts and turning up the defensive pressure themselves. Unfortunately, they couldn't sustain it for much more than a few minutes during the latter half of the second quarter and the early part of the third.
LaMarcus Aldridge is doing everything humanly possible to keep this Blazer train on the tracks. Tonight, though, you could tell that the pressure really got to the L-Train. After he stroked his first shot of the game, this seemed like it could be another big one. Unfortunately he ran out of steam, scoring 18 on 7-18 shooting, plus 13 rebounds.
The difficulties continue for Damian Lillard. Even though he filled up the stat sheet -- 19 points, nine assists and five rebounds -- the 6-19 shooting included a variety of contested jumpers and probably-too-deep threes (1-10 from distance). He also turned the ball over six times. The "I'm pissed" came out with that aforementioned nasty dunk in the second quarter that temporarily sparked the team, but Lillard struggled with the Bucks' pressure all night.
Speaking of struggles... Nicolas Batum is in quite the funk right now. The Frenchman scored just five points on 2-8 shooting, had two steals but also grouped in four turnovers. If anything he had a very Tony Allen-esque night: Make a nice defensive play, and then fumble it away on offense. It's obvious he's just trying to get to the All-Star break to rest that wrist.
Wesley Matthews was hot and cold all night. At the beginning of the third, Wes canned two threes and you thought this might be the homecoming he was hoping for. But it wasn't quite meant to be, as the Ironman dropped in 19 but didn't have a true momentum-clinching shot. Solid, albeit sometimes frustrating, night.
Meyers Leonard started tonight and had some nice hustle plays. He played decent defense and didn't commit a foul, plus was a force in transition. He probably would've had some more minutes if it weren't for......
Thomas Robinson, who was the lone bright spot for the Blazers tonight. T-Rob made some serious effort plays, earning him 24 minutes off the bench. Between his energy, six rebounds, three steals and one nasty blocked shot, it was a solid all-around night for the Truck (or whatever we're calling him these days). His play earned him a second half start.
Dorell Wright hit a few threes, but also missed a few. He finished 2-8 from the field, though his six points seemed larger than that. There were too many isolation plays, though, which is where Wright gets himself in trouble.
CJ McCollum was the first guard off the bench, and the experiment was so-so. McCollum's length is an asset, but he never really got in the flow of the game.
Steve Blake eventually had to come in and try to weather the storm for the second unit, but it was too late. Blake finished with a team-worst -14.
Will Barton and Chris Kaman both played 10 minutes and were mostly non-factors.