The Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks faced off in an interesting, at times tumultuous donnybrook on Tuesday night. The Bucks are Eastern up-and-comers. The Blazers are trying to stake the same claim for themselves in the West. You’d expect the game to be intense and close. It was. The evening contained everything you’d want from Portland’s perspective except the win. That minor detail went by the wayside, victim of great execution by the Bucks and a few mistakes from the home team down the stretch. For a team scrapping to make the playoffs there are no moral victories, but Blazer fans can take comfort that at least this wasn’t an immoral loss.
As has been their habit lately the Blazers started hotter than Ryan Reynolds in half a Speedo. The Bucks might as well have rolled out a red carpet for CJ McCollum at the tip. He spent the opening minutes making the most of his close-up opportunities, hitting 4 field goals within 9 feet in the first quarter to propel his team to an 8-0 start. They’d eventually parlay that into a 21-18 advantage at the end of the first. It probably should have been more. The Blazers couldn’t miss in the aggregate, shooting over 60% from the field in the period. Their inability to connect outside of 20 feet (0-5), a propensity for turnovers, and trouble keeping Milwaukee out of the lane all ate away at their edge. Still, with the Bucks shooting under 40%, things looked rosy.
The second quarter featured a huge turnaround in favor of Milwaukee. Portland’s bench made like Vin Diesel’s barber. (“We’re here! Not sure what we’re supposed to do, exactly...”) The Bucks’ defense crushed it. It wasn’t just that they kept Portland shooting horrendously, they simply didn’t allow shots. The Blazers attempted only 16 field goals in the quarter, hitting but 4. Meanwhile turnovers remained an issue. Milwaukee rebounded well. Portland’s starters couldn’t save anything when they checked back in and it turned into a 30-14 rout for the Bucks. Milwaukee led 48-35 at halftime.
The third period started as a back-and-forth affair, with both teams trading buckets. Obviously Milwaukee was happy to do so, protecting a reasonably large lead on the road. It almost backfired on them. Jusuf Nurkić threw his weight around on the boards. Damian Lillard came alive. It looked like the Blazers were going to start cooking, especially as the quarter came to a close. But Khris Middleton kept the Bucks afloat to make Portland’s 28-19 third period run significant, but not decisive. Milwaukee still led 67-63 after three.
You have to give the Blazers credit. Earlier in the year they might have gotten frustrated at trailing after expending so much effort. Tonight they kept their heads about them, showing a pretty good grasp of what the Bucks were trying to do and the ability to counter it.
They needed both since each team played to their strengths in the fourth quarter. The Blazers countered Milwaukee’s size by running screen plays high, getting guards into the lane or freeing them for quick jump shots. The Bucks had trouble keeping up. Meanwhile Milwaukee went hard inside, trying to leverage their bulk into short shots and caroms. Each team wore enough of the other’s clothing to keep the other off balance. Thanks to amazing dribble drives, Portland ended up scoring as many points in the lane as Milwaukee did. Conversely the Bucks canned as many deep threes as Portland. It was a wild west shootout, but there could be only one winner.
In the end, a big game was decided by small plays and slight weaknesses. Portland took the lead on a pristine floater in the lane by Lillard with 3:12 remaining. The score read 90-87 and the vibe in Moda Center said, “Win Ahead!” But the Blazers couldn’t keep Malcolm Brogdon out of the lane on the next possession. Then Noah Vonleh tried to extract revenge at the other end with a looping 2-footer that may have been above his pay grade. It sprayed off. The Bucks rebounded and Middleton took to the paint again on the next possession. That pair of close shots put Milwaukee up 1 again, 91-90.
On the next possession Allen Crabbe—who had made 2 of 3 jumpers in the quarter to key Portland’s surge—drove deep just as Vonleh had. He got blocked by John Henson. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a layup immediately after but Henson rebounded it for the put-back. If you’re keeping track, that made 4 quality shots for Milwaukee inside 10 feet—3 of which actually went in—in less than 90 seconds of crunch time.
On the next play the Blazers went to the well with their best inside scorer, Nurkić. He lost the ball out of bounds before making his move. With the score 93-90 and 1:04 remaining, Portland finally made a successful defensive stand. Allen Crabbe blocked Middleton’s jump shot giving his team a couple chances to tie it as the clock ran down. Milwaukee smelled what was coming and stuck to shooters like glue, though. Portland’s long-range heaves didn’t connect and the Bucks walked out of a semi-deflated Moda Center looking happy with their shiny new victory. The Blazers were left to talk about one that got away.
The Blazers can be more proud of this loss than some of their wins this season, if that makes sense. They didn’t lose this game because they executed poorly as a team. They made some blunders down the stretch but, in concept at least, their plays and their reasoning were sound. Their shot selection can’t be faulted. (The people taking those shots late could be, perhaps.) Portland’s defense could have been stouter, but that’s a habitual issue. Considering they were facing a big, talented team with a unique star capable of scoring in a dozen different ways on a given possession, they did well.
The Blazers didn’t let the Bucks run out on them tonight. They kept offensive rebounds even. Their offensive picks were solid. They even managed a 52-50 edge in points in the paint. Though they allowed the Bucks 44% shooting from the arc they held them to 42% overall and made up for the permissive perimeter defense by allowing only 12 foul shot attempts. For a team with Portland’s foul history, playing against a lineup with Milwaukee’s size and skill, that’s practically a miracle.
Unfortunately this game came down to which guards could defend better. Milwaukee had trouble containing Portland’s screen drives but they also held the Blazers to 4-21 shooting (19%) from distance. They closed out hard with long arms; Portland’s only solution was to back up. It didn’t work. Lillard and McCollum couldn’t return the favor, either on the close-outs or in the lane. That advantage ended up telling.
The Blazers are playing better. It just wasn’t enough tonight.
Setting aside the 2-9 shooting rate from beyond the arc, Damian Lillard had another whale of a game. He shot 13-26, scored 31 with 7 assists and 4(!) steals.
CJ McCollum also did his job with 9-17 shooting and 21 points.
Jusuf Nurkić was the fulcrum around which Portland’s lane operations swung. He had 5 offensive rebounds, 14 total boards, 2 blocks, and 2 steals in addition to his 5-9 shooting. His 4 turnovers weren’t out of the norm, it’s just that one got exposed at an unfortunate time.
Noah Vonleh is playing free and easy now. He looks good. He almost matched Nurkić with 4 offensive rebounds.
Mo Harkless did well enough tonight—a pair of blocks standing out—but the rest of the bench struggled. Allen Crabbe scored 11 and closed the game well, particularly on defense, but he shot only 4-11. No other bench player hit a shot. Al-Farouq Aminu had 7 rebounds in 19 minutes; that’s about it.
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The Trail Blazers currently stand at 32-38, a game behind the Denver Nuggets for the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Portland faces the New York Knicks on Thursday night at 7:00 pm Pacific.