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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Milwaukee Bucks Preview

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Portland visits Milwaukee as a show of good will to a fellow hipster-haven with a proud brewing tradition whose young basketball team has retooled to erratic results.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (9-12) vs Milwaukee Bucks (8-13)
Monday, December 7
BMO Bradley Center | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: Chris Kaman (Questionable - ankle | Milwaukee injury report: Jerryd Bayless (Questionable - ankle), Greivis Vasquez (Questionable - shoulder), Tyler Ennis (Questionable - ankle)
SBN Affiliate:
Brew Hoop | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

The Bucks’ turnaround last year was one of the great stories in the Association, mirrored by the complete 180 made by the reputation of Jason Kidd as coach. The front office also turned some heads in the offseason by showing that a small market could be a draw in today’s NBA when they landed Greg Monroe in free agency. This all had Milwaukee pegged as a popular dark horse for this season, prompting some particularly bold pundits to muse that they might be the only ones who could match up with Cleveland in the East.

To this point, they look more like Portland’s own Dark Horse Comics: High-interest, bold entertainment that offers something a little different, but ultimately fantasy.

There is time to rebound, adjust, and retool, but this 8-13 unit looks like a far cry from last year’s squad. The biggest reason is a huge drop in defensive effectiveness, from the high of No. 2 defensive rating last year to faceplanting at No. 26 this campaign. When your neighbors change from the Warriors, Spurs, and Grizzlies to the Rockets, Kings, and Lakers, friends have a right to be concerned about your life decisions.

Suddenly trading away two solid interior defenders and longtime Bucks in Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pechulia looks like a really bad idea. Ostensibly, this was done to make salary room for Monroe (15.8 PPG), who works the blocks like some mean 70’s funk music should be playing in the background, but only when he has the ball. On defense, it’s more like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

It was supposed that the Bucks’ incredible length featuring rim-protector-on-the-rise John Henson and the positionless wunderkind known as the "Greek Freak" (Giannis Antetokounmpo) would be enough to cover for their losses inside. Yet Henson is coming off an Achilles injury and is actually playing fewer minutes than last season in deference to Monroe’s scoring talents, and there is trouble on the perimeter. Greivis Vasquez and his well-below-average defense has been logging 22.6 MPG, while SF Jabari Parker and PG Michael Carter-Williams have struggled in team defensive concepts despite their athleticism and promise, and both have been removed from the starting lineup as a result. When four of your heavy rotation players are subpar on defense, you are getting 2 less steals per game than last year, and you’re getting killed on the offensive glass (second worst in the league at allowing second chances)…well, you can start to understand why a recent study found Wisconsin to be the heaviest drinking state in the country.

Of course correlation is not causation, but then you have to consider exhibit B: Carter-Williams' jump shot, which he is hitting at 26.3 percent from 15+ feet. Chase that with a career-worst 28.8 assist percentage and 23.3 turnover percentage and you get an extremely polarizing figure. Kidd’s effectiveness at developing / rehabilitating him and at what rate may well shape the direction this franchise takes. He was acquired at the trade deadline last year because the Bucks thought they wouldn’t be able to sign their best player and point guard Brandon Knight—who ended up signing a totally affordable 5 year / $70M contract. Of course, had they kept Knight, they wouldn’t have gone after Monroe, and would have had last year’s team intact for at least another couple seasons…if you squint hard enough at the past, you might have seen a team whose defense could have one day been an antidote to the Warriors’ frenetic offense.

If you squint hard enough into the future, you still might; there are some truly unique building blocks here. 6-foot-8 SG Khris Middleton (14.3 PPG, 47.2 percent from three) is a gifted marksman with the wingspan of a pterodactyl (almost seven feet!) and a flair for the dramatic, having hit a number of walk-off shots over the past two seasons. Parker, even coming off a catastrophic knee injury, has established himself as one of the game’s most exciting in-game dunkers, with an appetite for rim-rockers in traffic.  For example, here he yams it on the Cavs twice in succession:

And here’s another nifty throwdown from earlier on this season:

Then there is Antetokounmpo (16 PPG, 6.3 RBD, 2.7 AST), who appears to have taken the next step in what might well be an unprecedented development arc, given his array of talents. Despite cooling off lately following a blistering start, the 21-year-old with go-go-gadget arms regularly astounds, with an uncanny handle for someone 6-foot-11, and an ability to get to the rim at will—since he can literally pick his dribble up outside the arc and make it to the rack for a lay-in. I know, what? True story, bro. Here’s a typical assortment of highlights from a recent game:

The newfound strength he showed to push through contact and finish on that drive-and-dunk is particularly impressive. But it’s his takeoff points on dunks that can be truly mind-bending.

Like the Blazers, this is a very young team: 10 of 15 players on the roster are 25 or younger, with Vasquez, Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo being the only contributors of note over 25. And like the Blazers, the future looks like it is still a little ways away.

At present, Vasquez, Bayless and Tyler Ennis are all banged up and highly questionable to suit up against the Blazers, meaning Carter-Williams may be the only active point guard. Last game, facing the same situation, Mayo and Antetokounmpo helped share the ball-handling duties. Their team offense and outside shooting already regularly looks ugly…basically, a lot has to break your way when you’re playing bad defense and worse offense if you want a chance to win games.

What the Blazers have to do to win

Take care of the ball: Teams have figured out about the Bucks is that they’re a lot less dangerous if you don’t let them steal the ball and get out in transition. That’s on the guards’ shoulders not to get themselves hung up; often times it may look like a tasty opportunity to blow by a Parker or a Vasquez (if he plays), but you especially have to keep an eye out for the next level of defender in Milwaukee, so it will definitely pay to…

Be patient and swing it: It’s best to avoid those long-armed nettles in the center of the defense, and instead move the ball side-to-side to break down the D. That will be one of the better ways to create clear driving / passing lanes and open shots against these guys. But there’s definitely more than one way to skin these cats…

Show no mercy to Milwaukee's weak links: Well known for their brats, we know there are no weak links there. But the Blazers should run a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls at Monroe, as he struggles in all facets against them. If the Blazers run, Plumlee or Leonard should be able to beat him down the floor consistently. All the Blazer bigs should hit the offensive glass hard; each one will have a decided advantage over any Buck they face, be it height, weight, or athleticism. And dare Carter-Williams to shoot jumpers all night, while taking best advantage of the injury situation at point guard.

Bonus Suggestion - Mix in some double-teams on Monroe in the post: Terry Stotts likely won’t take this advice, since he is rumored to have a documented allergy to doubling down (which also doesn’t make him that much fun at the blackjack table…again, rumors). But as part of an all-out assault on the mindspace of their most consistent scorer, I like it, especially when the Blazers are facing certain personnel. Carter-Williams, Vasquez (34.2 percent FG), Mayo (26.7 percent on threes), Ennis (38.2 percent FG), swingman Chris Copeland (35.9 percent FG), and SG Rashad Vaughn (34.1 percent FG) have all been brutal shooting from outside, so why not send their defender to collapse the middle and poke at the ball while Monroe’s main defender seals off the baseline, where he is a magician? Frustrating him for a handful of possessions could help steal a win.

Outlook

Basically if the Blazers play smart, they have a good chance to score a second straight road win. I expect Ed Davis and Plumlee to dominate on the glass and the Blazers’ hallmark passing of the last couple years to open up some good looks. The Bucks likely being short-handed in the backcourt should aIso play Portland's way. If their boys play true to form, Portland can claim to have the best hops.

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