The Portland Trail Blazers were left stunned tonight after Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career-high 44-point performance carried the Milwaukee Bucks to a 113-110 victory at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum’s 52 combined points were good enough to give the Blazers the lead in the final moments, but in the end, this night belonged to the Greek Freak. Portland was still able to remain competitive on the second night of a back-to-back, which will ease some of the pain of defeat.
The Bucks opened things up by running Khris Middleton off multiple screens on consecutive possessions. Maurice Harkless struggled to keep pace, and Milwaukee was rewarded by six early points. The Blazers remained close by relying on the deft-touch of CJ McCollum, who was able to carry Portland’s offense past a rough 1-for-5 start for Jusuf Nurkic. Damian Lillard kept McCollum’s momentum going by getting to the free throw line for four attempts, allowing the Blazers to close the quarter with a slight lead.
McCollum continued to keep Milwaukee off balance to start the second by stretching the defense to the perimeter before attacking downhill towards the basket. Portland’s lead increased to nine before Giannis Antetokounmpo made his presence known. The Blazers’ defense softened in the middle, allowing the Greek Freak to capatilize on favorable looks inside the paint. Turnovers and empty possessions on offense compounded Portland’s problems, allowing Milwaukee’s lead to balloon to eight before the Bucks headed to the locker room up 60-55.
Eight points by Lillard and McCollum got the Blazers level after halftime, but Portland’s struggles to protect the paint allowed the Bucks to stay in front. After several attempts close to the basket, Milwaukee’s guards found success by kicking the ball outside after reaching the interior, which led to Mirza Teletovic and Tony Snell’s combined 6-for-8 night from beyond the arc. Nurkic was finally able to establish himself with a beautiful block on Antetokounmpo and a flawless midrange basket on consecutive possessions. With the defense focused on the Bosnian Beast, CJ was able to capitalize on the space, allowing the Blazers to stay within four points heading into the fourth.
Portland’s defense continued to look for answers to slow down the Greek Freak’s assault on the boxscore, and eventually settled on placing Evan Turner between Giannis and the basket. Even on well-defended plays, Antetokounmpo’s length proved to be too much in the post, and his hot hand couldn’t be denied from distance. Even in the face of Giannis’ 44-point night, Lillard was able to put together enough offense for the Blazers to climb back into the game. After converting a deep 3-pointer, Dame sank two free throws to give Portland a 110-109 lead with under a minute to play. Unfortunately for Portland, Antetokounmpo was not going to be denied, and closed out the final moments with two steals to go along with his lead-preserving block on Nurkic at the rim.
The Blazers faced their biggest test on defense of the young season in this one, and the issues from the first two contests finally had serious consequences against the Bucks. Portland continued its struggles against dribble penetration, which led to Milwaukee recording 54 points in the paint. No matter how good a Lillard-led offense plays, it will always be an uphill climb for the Blazers if they are allowing their opponent to shoot over 50 percent from the field.
On the positive side, Portland’s ability to out-rebound teams will keep them in games even when the offense stagnates. With their field goal percentage hovering under 40 percent for long stretches of this contest, the Blazers were able to keep it close by creating several second-chance points. Nurkic’s five offensive rebounds were nearly enough to surpass the Bucks’ team total of seven.
Perhaps it was being on a back-to-back for the first time this season, or maybe it was the overwhelming amount of athleticism on Milwaukee’s side, but pace was an issue for Portland tonight. The Blazers were only able to generate two points in transition tonight—putting a ton of pressure on the halfcourt offense.
After three games it’s tough to draw firm conclusions about Portland’s defensive improvements. Antetokounmpo was the first bonafide superstar the Blazers have faced this season, and his career night isn’t an encouraging sign for coach Terry Stotts’ squad. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins will provide us with a quick follow-up to this question on Tuesday.
Lillard’s 26 points were nearly enough to outlast the Greek Freak’s onslaught. By getting to the free throw line for 12 attempts, Lillard allowed Portland to slow the game down on the second night of a back-to-back. It wasn’t all pleasant for Dame, however, as his six turnovers were a byproduct of facing an extremely lanky Milwaukee backcourt.
After struggling in the first half, Nurkic finally started to look like the Bosnian Beast. He missed four of his first five shots, but he was eventually able to finish 7-of-17 from the field on his way to 17 points—his highest tally of the young season. Nurkic’s three successful midrange shots tonight will have to keep Portland satisfied until he converts his first 3-point attempt.
McCollum followed up his 28-point season debut with an impressive 26 points. The Bucks’ perimeter defenders have the length to make it a long night for even the best guards in the NBA, but it didn’t prevent McCollum from going 9-for-18 from the field.
With a rocky first year in Portland behind him, Turner continued to show that he is capable of creating instant offense off the bench. His ability to out-maneuver opposing guards on his way to midrange buckets is impressive, but his ability to find open teammates in tight windows was just as pleasant to the eye tonight. ET had seven assists against the Bucks, and managed to only commit two turnovers.
It’s early, but it certainly looks like Ed Davis has returned to the player Portland fell in love with in his first year with the Blazers. Davis created multiple second-chance opportunities with his four offensive rebounds against Milwaukee. In only 16 minutes of action, Davis was able to record 11 rebounds.
Our friends at Brew Hoop are cracking open a cold one after Giannis’ big night.
The Blazers return home to Portland to face the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday.
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com