Whatever the Portland Trail Blazers were expecting when Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks came to town, it probably wasn’t ending up on the wrong end of a 103-91 shellacking in which their own fans served up a buffet of boos before their faces. They may have been prepared (somewhat) for the Greek Freak, but guards Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe pounded them all night long, aided by a raft of Portland turnovers big enough to float the Willamette. The debut of the Blazers’ new, red “Statement” uniforms may have been the focal point at tip-off, but Portland waving the white flag soon after halftime defined the evening far more.
The opening of this game belonged to Jusuf Nurkic. He wasn’t sharing shot attempts, lane space, or any Christmas well-wishes with the Bucks as he dominated inside, scoring 11 points in the period, all right at the cup. Milwaukee had the length, but not the size, to deal with him. But length hurt the Blazers terribly in the backcourt, as the Bucks overshadowed every shot attempt from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, while hitting fairly simple shots over Portland’s futilely flailing arms. When Nurkic took a seat, Portland’s rebounding and inside dominance tanked. Turnovers also picked up. Despite Nurk’s outburst, the Bucks still led 33-21 after one. They weren’t even going that hard through Giannis Antetokounmpo yet. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe ended up turning the Greek Freak into an occasional option.
Portland’s defense went from bad to rancid in the second period. Half the roster looked like they weren’t trying...a rare sight this season. Middleton continued to pour in points while his teammates blasted the Blazers in the paint. Turnovers continued. Antetokounmpo got in rhythm. The Bucks were handing out diplomas as the Blazers walked off the court at halftime, having just taken them to school. Milwaukee led 60-45 at the half.
Any hope of a comeback was dashed in the third period as the Blazers proved incapable of making simple entry passes to the post without getting them stolen for a Bucks run-out. Milwaukee’s lead ballooned to 24. Portland fans were actively booing as the clock ticked onward into futility. Lillard and McCollum keyed a brief, 11-0 run in the fourth to bring a sliver of hope. Then the referees blew a couple calls, allowing the Moda Center faithful to switch their vocal derision off of Meyers Leonard and onto a more appropriate target. None of it amounted to much. The game wasn’t ever that close.
The Blazers hoped to capitalize on, “Our center is bigger than you, our scoring guards slimmer and more crafty.” Milwaukee inverted that, trying to make use of rangy bigs and longer guards. The Bucks won the tug-of-war handily.
Much has been made of Portland’s “excellent” defense this season, citing Defensive Efficiency, in which the Blazers rank second in the NBA to the Boston Celtics. Tonight everybody who laid eyes on that court saw what real defense is. Aside from a few inspired moments from Nurkic, the Blazers didn’t even come close to matching Milwaukee’s prowess. The Bucks held down Lillard and McCollum early, then began chipping away at Nurkic’s possessions. They dominated. Portland looked uninspired by comparison.
Milwaukee’s starting lineup destroyed Portland’s tonight. Middleton and Bledsoe each ended up shooting 10-17 for 26 and 25 points, respectively. Antetokounmpo hit only 7-20 shots but still scored 20 and was his own personal missile defense system every time the Blazers wanted an easy shot in the first half. The Bucks spent most of the game over 50% from the field, settling down to 48.3% after garbage time. Meanwhile the Blazers shot 42.2% from the floor, 26.1% from the arc. Neither Lillard nor McCollum topped 20 points.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, 19 Portland turnovers led to 29 Milwaukee points, a deep hole out of which to climb. Portland gained no advantage at the foul line either, as the normally-prolific Lillard attempted only 3 free throws in the game.
Though the final margin looked tepid, this was as big of an owning as the Blazers have taken all season. Bottom line: Milwaukee was far, far better.
This was Jusuf Nurkic’s game in the opening and closing quarter. The highlight of his night was a massive block on an Antetokounmpo layup attempt in the fourth that unfortunately was called a foul. Otherwise it would have been SportsCenter Top Ten material (and maybe still should be). But Nurkic didn’t always generate shots for other players. He got tunnel vision. He also failed to seal his man after choosing interesting places to post up in the first place. That led to those fatal Portland turnovers in the middle quarters. Nurkic committed 6 himself, but added 25 points and 11 rebounds to balance it out.
The Blazers can’t survive with Damian Lillard attempting only 3 foul shots and hitting only 2 of 7 triples. Just about the only thing he and CJ McCollum did really well tonight is pass...though Lillard salted in 5 turnovers with his 7 assists. McCollum had a rough shooting night, hitting only 7-20, 1-6 from distance. He was twisting to get above or around defenders all game long.
Neither Noah Vonleh nor Pat Connaughton could do enough to justify their court time tonight, which was limited to 23 and 16 minutes in any case. Milwaukee’s young guns looked far superior.
Al-Farouq Aminu returned to the court, playing 22 minutes and hitting a pair of three-pointers. The Blazers needed him as an offensive outlet. That isn’t his game. After a shaky start on defense he bore down and ended up effective on that end.
Ed Davis got only 8 minutes, Moe Harkless but 6. The Blazers went with their main guns.
Meyers Leonard got booed something awful after badly missing a three-pointer and not quite hustling to pick up a loose ball.
Shabazz Napier was out of sorts tonight, missing 4 shots in 16 minutes and playing defense with studied indifference.
Along with Aminu, Evan Turner helped Portland counter Milwaukee’s height in the fourth, but it was too late to make a real difference. He finished the game with 8 points on 3-5 shooting, plus 7 rebounds. It wasn’t a bad night for Turner...just about the only non-Nurkic player you can say that about.
Brew Hoop will HAVE to be impressed by this game.
The Blazers will take on the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night at 7:00 pm, Pacific.