Before they ever set foot in the field, ethical hunters are taught to become strong marksmen. Shooting prey in a spot that's not immediately lethal is considered cruel. Plus tracking a wounded animal for two hours is nobody's idea of fun.
The Portland Trail Blazers didn't follow the Golden Rule of Hunting when they faced the Milwaukee Bucks tonight. A solid first-quarter shot gave way to two periods of scrambling through underbrush before the Bucks finally succumbed late. In the end the Blazers bagged their quarry with a convincing 107-95 win, which is all that really matters. But man, those middle quarters were tough.
If you noticed a mushroom cloud sprouting over the Moda Center during the first period tonight, you needn't have worried. That was just the Blazers going Aminuclear. After CJ McCollum staked his team to a 7-2 lead with a couple of shots and an assist, Al-Farouq Aminu ripped off 10 straight points in his most glorious two-minute stretch of the season. The Bucks came prepared for guard play, but Aminu slapping the HAM into the sandwich was too much to swallow. After AFA's point-filled tantrum, McCollum returned for a brief encore before Damian Lillard said, "Hey guys...you remember I suit up for this team too, right?" McCollum and Aminu cleared their throats and looked sheepish, then watched as Lillard pasted 8 straight on Milwaukee to close the quarter. As the horn sounded Portland's shooting percentage exceeded 60% while the Bucks languished around 30%. Portland led 27-19 after one.
Then came a second period so ugly that Moray Eels were swiping left. And they don't have arms. The 30-29 edge for Portland in the frame might cause you to think it was an offensive fiesta. Those 59 points were more like the aftermath of a bad burrito. The Blazers scored because the Bucks couldn't hold onto the ball. The Bucks scored because the Blazers couldn't defend. Portland went up 43-30 with 5:30 remaining in the second but Jerryd Bayless and Giannis Antetokounmpo rattled off 15 points in the final 4 minutes of the half doing nothing but existing. Portland's defenders wanted to facepalm but Antetokounmpo's sneakers kept getting in the way. The Blazers still led 56-49 at the break but the margin should have been 100...a classic recipe for disaster.
Sure enough, the Bucks came back in the early third quarter courtesy of the only focused defense they'd play all evening. They clamped down hard on Portland's guards and dared the Blazers to beat them with anyone else. Aminu, Mason Plumlee, and Ed Davis all tried, along with Lillard and McCollum themselves. No dice. With Greg Monroe beating up Portland's frontcourt from the post, Milwaukee crawled back within 3. But just when it seemed the teams were destined to duel to the final buzzer, Allen Crabbe stepped up with a pair of quick jump shots, pushing the lead back to 9. This paved the way for a fourth period in which Portland's guards would dominate. Crabbe hit a short jumper to begin the festivities. Then McCollum and Gerald Henderson turned out the lights with 21 straight points between them. The Bucks never knew what hit them. Their super-athletic jumping and dodging amounted to meaningless final twitches as the Blazers clipped the tag on their 5th straight victory.
The contrast in approaches between these two teams is stark. The Blazers play system ball. They're open to anyone who can contribute, giving rise to wonderful performances from less-heralded players like Aminu and Crabbe. The Bucks play their matchups, demanding production from the player they throw the ball to in a given set and suffering when it's not there. Tonight their offense was a carousel of rotating front-men, trying to find someone with a spark of life. They got it eventually, but not often enough and not for long enough. Games like this should remind Portland fans how strong Terry Stotts and his coaching staff are and why NBA players should look twice at franchises that take Portland's approach.
On the surface the statistical comparison between the Blazers and Bucks in this game proves near identical. Both teams shot the same percentages, attempted nearly the same number of field goals, and knotted up in offensive rebounds, assists, turnovers...on down the line. Portland's dominance showed up in type of shots more than anything. The Blazers scored more in the paint, more on the break, and more from the three-point arc, plus Milwaukee suffered from abysmal 58% free throw shooting. Everything easy belonged to the Blazers, everything difficult to the Bucks. This isn't an accident; it's exactly how the Blazers want to play. "11-31 on three-pointers? Not our best night, but no problem. Those shots are worth more. Have fun in the mid-range, Milwaukee."
CJ McCollum shot a filthy-disgusting 10-18 from the floor, 3-6 from the arc, and 7-9 from the foul line on his way to 30 points. It was a textbook example of how he likes to play: snaking through the defense with the ball, finding seams for passes or shots, occasionally serving as a deadeye outlet shooter. Nobody cares about 4 turnovers against 6 assists or 5 personal fouls when you score 30.
Damian Lillard took a back seat in this game, taking pride in 12 assists and saving the scoring for key end-of-quarter stretches. He looked unstoppable in both aspects. He scored 14, marred only by 0-6 three-point shooting.
Just stop it, Al-Farouq Aminu, they're dead already. He was the bullet in Portland's .30-06 in that first quarter and even though he spent plenty of time as the unaccustomed third-best athlete on the floor, he seemed to really enjoy this game. As long as the game comes natural to Aminu, he's brilliant. He finished with 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals.
Mason Plumlee got out-Plumleed by his brother Miles. The Portland Plumlee shot 1-5 with 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, and an astonishing 5 personal fouls in 20 minutes. He was like a Roman Candle on the 4th of July: blam-blam-blam-blam-BLAM! Now he's done. "I wanted to play you more, Mase, but you'd have fouled out in another nanosecond."
Noah Vonleh played 16 minutes, rolling his ankle in the third quarter and limping to the locker room.
Meyers Leonard's vaunted interior defense lasted just as long as it took Greg Monroe to show up, but Leonard shot 3-7 from distance to balance it. He had 3 turnovers in 27 minutes...not his strongest night.
Ed Davis had a really nice game, shooting 4-7, hanging around the basket for opportunity buckets and roll plays. 4 offensive rebounds in 23 minutes is All-World.
11 points in 25 minutes isn't Allen Crabbe's stat line of the year, but he was the one bench player (besides maybe Davis) that the Bucks could never pin down. Just when they thought they had the Blazers in trouble, Crabbe hit another jumper and pushed them back again.
Gerald Henderson...wow to that fourth quarter and his best overall game as a Blazer. 6-11 shooting is impressive. 14 points in 22 minutes is super-impressive. 9 rebounds in that same time span is sick.
Links and Such
In case you missed it, check out this important announcement about Blazers' Edge Night, 2016 and help us send 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers-Kings game on March 28th! Donating is easy. Just click here and use the promo code:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
Instant Recap (Maybe the most important and underrated signing in the Trail Blazers universe this season has been Miro Frankzerda as a Blazer's Edge Instant Recap writer. As he'll be quick to remind you, the team is now 5-0 when he recaps games.)
Brew Hoop will need a few extra ones to deal with their team's hard-fought, but futile effort tonight. Take a tip from Portlanders, guys: microbrews go down easier.
The Blazers take on the always-tough Toronto Raptors on Thursday night at 7:00 p.m.