After spending the better part of last week picking on Eastern Conference bottom feeders, the Portland Trail Blazers finally met a match their own size in the Milwaukee Bucks. On a night where Portland’s bench combined to shoot 6-of-31 and another brilliant offensive performance from Damian Lillard went unrequited, Portland fell in convincing, 127-109 fashion.
The suddenly-healthy Blazers had a chance to send a message by defeating a team with a winning record — something they’ve done only four times in the last two months — in this home game. Instead they drop to 29-19, a full game back of the Denver Nuggets. If you missed it, here’s Ryan Rosback’s instant recap of tonight’s game. Now, a few additional thoughts.
An Interesting Strategy for Defending Giannis:
In defending the reigning two-time league MVP, Portland went with a creative don’t-chase-him-and-don’t-contest approach, and Milwaukee reaped major benefits. Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 47 points and 12 rebounds on 18-of-21 shooting.
The deeper one dives, the more disconcerting it gets. Antetokounmpo was a perfect 15-of-15 inside the paint, and seeing the ball go through the net grew his comfort level in taking shots outside of the paint, too. On some possessions, the Blazers’ strategy called for dropping their big into the paint, so as to invite Antetokounmpo to take anything he wanted outside of 10-feet. He was able to step into midrange shots — and yes, of course, he hit them all — or generate the requisite power needed to attack the rim and get downhill.
The problem wasn’t necessarily that the Blazers allowed Antetokounmpo those shots, but rather, that they failed to adjust and keep him guessing.
Perhaps the only silver lining to come out of this: the last two times Antetokounmpo and Lillard have shared the floor together, the Bucks superstar has shot 18-of-21 from the field, and then 16-of-16 in last month’s All-Star Game. Call it osmosis, but he’s putting the ball in at an irregular clip when he and the Blazers star are in the same arena. Someone get Neil Olshey on speed dial.
A Historically-Poor Shooting Night, Especially From the Bench:
The Blazers entered tonight’s game with a 13-4 record when their second unit outscored the opposition’s bench. So, in seeing the Milwaukee bench slug their way into 24 points (on 29 shots), the Blazers would have seemed like a safe bet for a win. Instead, Portland struggled to thaw until garbage time, missing 17 of their first 18 shots.
Perhaps that would have been survivable if not for the struggles on defense. The Bucks entered Playoff Mode relatively early, hunting out matchups within that second unit and attacking switches in the pick-and-roll.
Maybe that would have even been survivable if the starters, sans Lillard and Covington, were able to find their rhythm. Take your pick of statistics: Only two starters scored in the first quarter. The Blazers shot 32 percent at the half and only trailed by seven. NBA TV commentators Greg Anthony and Steve Smith said it all night: Portland was fortunate to be in it for as long as they were.
A Noticeable Second-Half Absence:
When you’re 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan, infectious energy, and defensive versatility, it’s going to be hard for your absence to go unnoticed. Such was the case with Derrick Jones Jr. tonight. Since the Norman Powell acquisition, Jones Jr.’s minutes have been on the downturn, trickling down from 21 to 18 to just 11 in tonight’s loss.
This isn’t to say Jones Jr. would’ve been the antidote for stopping Antetokounmpo, but anything would’ve been better than the 18-of-21 shooting performance the Bucks star had tonight.
In studying a few Bucks games before tonight’s, Milwaukee had been having some communication issues in locating athletic, ambitious swingmen on the defensive glass and giving up second chance opportunities. It’s perhaps the sole reason they lost to Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers on Monday.
Jones Jr.’s energy is impactful and perceptible. Given the Blazers’ penchant for scoring second chance points — they rank third with 14.8 per game — having someone gobbling those misses, or at least creating loose balls and 50-50 plays, could have come in handy. That serves as something to watch going forward.
— It wasn’t a memorable night by any stretch for Carmelo Anthony, who struggled on each end. He did jump into the No. 16 spot on the all-time list for field goals made. He found a rhythm later in the game, which could bode well for Saturday night.
— The Blazers’ offense often falls into the trap of isolation, hoping Lillard, McCollum, and Anthony’s craftiness can bail them out. But, there were a number of plays on tape where they ran crisp sets and got the ball out quickly. Tonight’s 23 fast break points were the third-most on the season, and they showed some beautiful split cuts that got guys open throughout.
The Blazers have to quickly adjust their focus to a Saturday night divisional battle against the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder at 7:00 pm PT.