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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Milwaukee Bucks Preview

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The Blazers return home to face the best team in the NBA.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (16-23) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (34-6)

Saturday, January 11 - 7:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Rodney Hood (out), Zach Collins (out), Jusuf Nurkic (out), Skal Labissiere (out), Hassan Whiteside (questionable), Mario Hezonja (questionable)
Bucks injuries: Ersan Ilyasova (questionable), Giannis Antetokounmpo (probable)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW
How to stream: Blazer’s Edge Streaming Guide
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Brew Hoop

The Trail Blazers return to Portland after a disappointing 2-3 road trip. While the trip had at least one highlight—a 101-99 victory in Toronto—it was bookended by disappointing losses to the Knicks and Timberwolves. The Blazers may be happy to return to the Moda Center, but they probably aren’t looking forward to going up against the NBA’s best team.

The Milwaukee Bucks are concluding a four-game road trip in Portland. They’ll be playing the second of a back-to-back after defeating the Sacramento Kings 127-106 Friday night. They lost in San Antonio to begin the trip—only their third loss since early November.

What to watch for

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s rare for an MVP to significantly improve the season following their MVP campaign, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has done just that. Last year the 25-year-old averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists for the 60-22 Bucks. This season he’s averaging 30.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists for a Bucks team that is on pace to have an even better record. He’s putting up those numbers in fewer minutes per game (31, down from 32.8 last season). His improvement has come in part by addressing his main weakness: three-point shooting. Last season Antetokounmpo did not shoot often from beyond the arc (2.8 attempts per game), and made threes even less frequently (25.6 percent). This season he’s shooting more frequently from distance (5.2 attempts), and while his percentage of 31.9 isn’t close to the league’s top shooters, it’s enough to force teams to respect him and not leave him open.
  • Some old friends. The Bucks added a couple former Blazer fan favorites this past offseason, signing both Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez to short deals. Matthews has started every game for Milwaukee while providing solid defense and three-point shooting (37.5 percent on the season). Lopez signing with the Bucks reunited him with his twin brother, Brook Lopez. The two hadn’t played together since leaving Stanford in 2008. Former Blazer Pat Connaughton is in his second year with Milwaukee. He put up 18 points against Portland earlier this season.
  • Not many weaknesses. The Bucks have the best record in the NBA, and they don’t have many (any?) weaknesses. Their defensive rating of 102 is the best in the league and their offensive rating of 113.4 is third. They are the second-best shooting team (47.9 percent) and the best rebounding team. The only area where Milwaukee doesn’t excel is free throw shooting. The Bucks are shooting only 73.2 percent from the free throw line—the second worst mark in the league.

What they’re saying

Brian Sampson of Brew Hoops explores what Milwaukee needs from Eric Bledsoe:

Whether it be scoring or setting up his teammates, Bledsoe, and the Bucks, are at their best when he’s in attack mode. That’s his bread and butter.

He’s far from a perfect player. Everyone realizes that. However, he doesn’t need to be perfect for the Bucks to win a championship. Milwaukee is a deep and well-rounded team built to compensate for imperfect players, and nobody’s asking him to be Superman.

A saying I’m fond of goes a little like this: If something doesn’t work-do less of it. If something works-do more of it. The Bucks need to stick to their bread and butter and play inside out with Bledsoe providing some of the inside attack. If he can stay aggressive no matter what strategies and mind tricks defenses impose, the Bucks will have every opportunity to reach their full potential.

ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry cites the Bucks’ depth as one of four factors for Milwaukee’s success:

The Bucks play well for all 48 minutes, especially on defense. Their defensive concepts are working both with Giannis in and out of the game largely because their roster is stacked with talented and willing defensive players.

The addition of Robin Lopez has enabled the second unit to mimic the interior prowess of the starting group. Meanwhile, perimeter bench players Donte DiVincenzo and Sterling Brown are actually posting better defensive ratings than Antetokounmpo. The 2018-19 Bucks were good without Giannis on the floor, but these Bucks are even better.

JR Radcliffe of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wonders if Steph Curry was trying to recruit Antetokounmpo:

Given the NBA’s salary structure, the Bucks are in position to offer Giannis more money than any other team, and they also happen to be the top team in the league this season. But still ... there’s some nail-biting. The Warriors have been destroyed by injuries and have the worst record in the West this year, but nobody’s fooled: they’ll be back up and running when Curry and Klay Thompson (among others) get healthy.