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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Milwaukee Bucks Preview

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After surviving a close battle with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers are back in action tonight against the struggling Milwaukee Bucks.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (23-26) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (20-30)
Tuesday, February 2
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
Pat Connaughton (Questionable - Ankle)Milwaukee injury report: John Henson (Questionable - Back), O.J. Mayo (Doubtful - Hamstring), Greivis Vasquez (Doubtful - Ankle)
SBN Affiliate: Brew Hoop | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

When the Portland Trail Blazers last took on the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 7, they managed to blow a four-point lead in last 32 seconds and hand the game to Milwaukee. Flash forward seven weeks, and these are two teams headed in different directions, with the Bucks losing five of their last six games and Portland having won four in a row and eight of their last 10 overall.

Last season, the Bucks were the darlings of the NBA, sporting a .500 record behind the fourth best defense in the league. They found success with a combination of length and a scrambling defensive scheme predicated on communication and switching.

This season has been a different story. Though they retain the length they had last year, teams have been able to exploit Milwaukee's defense and there have been rumblings that much of the problem is effort related. More than halfway through the year, the Bucks have the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA and struggle particularly against the 3-point shot, allowing more than nine makes per game and nearly 37 percent from distance.

Milwaukee plays at a relatively slow pace, preferring to run elbow series in the halfcourt with ample off-ball movement. In Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee features several starters who can handle the ball in halfcourt situations. Despite having the seventh slowest pace of play, the Bucks rank sixth in assists, with 23 per game.

Shooting guard Middleton, picked by many to further breakout this year after a surprise performance last season, has picked up the offensive load after a slow start to the season. Over the last month, Middleton is putting up nearly 21 points per game, along with five assists and four rebounds.

Middleton prefers to score from the perimeter, where he shoots nearly 42 percent from 3-point range. In fact, 56 percent of Middleton's attempts come from at least 16 feet from the basket. Despite the team's defensive struggles as a group, Middleton is a well-regarded disruptive defender, with long arms able to bother opposing guards.

Speaking of long arms, Milwaukee enigma Giannis "Greek Freak" Antetokounmpo is a 6-foot-11 utility man capable of playing four positions on the court and features a 7-foot-3 wing span (same as Dwight Howard). Giannis' potential is sky-high, but he has had challenges putting it all together thus far. He may be showing the beginning of what he is capable of, however, as January was likely his best month as a pro, where he rattled off averages of 16.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block while shooting 52 percent from the floor.

Giannis still lacks a consistent jump shot and shoots just 22 percent from behind the 3-point line, but he excels at getting to the rim where he has the athletic ability to finish in traffic and the size to absorb contact. Even more important to the Bucks is his aforementioned ability to play multiple positions. Depending on the matchup, Giannis alternates predominately at both forward spots with Jabari Parker, giving Milwaukee a high degree of flexibility in the frontcourt.

Parker, now recovered from the ACL tear that robbed him of most of his rookie season, is a tweener forward who already features an array of scoring moves, showing notable skill generating points off the dribble. Though he is a solid passer and decent post player, in order to take the next step, he needs to improve the consistency of his jumper, as he shoots below 40 percent from anywhere outside of three feet of the basket.

Bucks center and prized offseason free agent acquisition Greg Monroe has had a solid, if unspectacular season. He always put up good numbers while sharing the paint with Andre Drummond in Detroit, and Milwaukee's hope had been for his to take a leap forward in production after joining a Bucks team that had nearly zero post presence last season.

The results have been mixed, with Monroe putting up typical numbers. To be fair, those numbers are very nice, as he is averaging 16.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Though Monroe hasn't taken the leap that his team has hoped for, he is an excellent post scorer with a solid left hand. Monroe is a skilled passer out of the paint and, despite his lack of athleticism, is one of the better rebounders in the game at both ends of the floor.

Monroe's absence of mobility can get him in trouble on the defensive end, where his quickness and vertical ability are both limited. Not fleet of foot, Monroe can do well against the more plodding centers in the league, but may face difficulties matched up with the hyperactive Mason Plumlee.

Much-maligned point guard Michael Carter-Williams, only two years removed from being named the NBA Rookie of the Year, has seen his production drop further this season. A ball-dominant player with an awkward looking release, Carter-Williams thrives when he is able to get out on the run and is focused on getting his teammates involved.

Off the bench, Milwaukee features Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo (who is doubtful for tonight's game) in the backcourt. Bayless, who is somehow still only 27 years old, is a combo guard with a reliable midrange jump shot and a new found 3-point stroke, where he shoots 41 percent on more than four attempts per game. Mayo, should he play, is a streaky scorer who is struggling with his shot this season, hitting only 37 percent of his attempts.

In the frontcourt, Milwaukee employs a bench duo of John Henson and Johnny O'Bryant. Henson has been long-renowned as an long, elite post defender and shot blocker. Henson is also an excellent rebounder but, due to his limited development on the offensive end, seldom plays big minutes. O'Bryant is a typical wide-bodied reserve power forward. He is a solid rebounder, but does little else of note.

Portland will be looking to continue their recent run of solid play, which has been predicated on ball movement, bench scoring, and the continued excellent play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Lillard tweaked an ankle against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday, so it will be interesting to see how well he is able to move, especially early in the game before it loosens up.

Matchups

Giannis/Aminu: With Antetokounmpo having taken his game to another level, the task will fall on Al-Farouq Aminu to shut down Milwaukee's Swiss Army Knife. When Giannis gets frustrated, he tends to put his head down and charge recklessly toward the basket, so Aminu should focus on playing as physically as possible, since he will be giving up a good amount of length.

Monroe/Plumlee: As mentioned, Monroe is an excellent low-post scorer who lacks the foot speed or athleticism to hang with the quicker big men in the league. If Mason Plumlee is anything, it's athletic, and it would behoove Portland to use that to their advantage. Look for Plumlee to be especially active in the pick-and-roll and in high-post situations where he can use his quick first step to get by Monroe and either make a move to the rim or find one of the baseline cutters that Portland is so fond of using when Plumlee has the ball.

Keys to victory

Move the ball: Despite their success last season, Milwaukee can't stay locked in defensively this year. The Blazers will need to trust the offense and ensure that they are not just taking turns going one-on-one. By forcing Milwaukee to react, the Blazers will be able to get a lot of open looks from distance, which just happens to be a huge part of their offensive philosophy.

Defensive rebounding: With Monroe, Giannis, and even bench players like Henson on the team, the Bucks do well on the offensive glass, averaging 10.6 offensive rebounds per game. Portland will need to do all they can to keep the aforementioned players off the offensive glass and limit second chance points, especially since the Bucks play at a pace that values possessions. If Ed Davis, Plumlee, or Meyers Leonard are in double figures in rebounding, you can bet that the Blazers had a good night.

Outlook

Portland is playing like a team that wants to reach the postseason and, perhaps more importantly, believes it can get there. If they don't deviate from what's gotten them a 12-6 record since Christmas and near .500, they can expect to walk out of the Moda Center with a fifth win in a row.

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