In wake of news that the team will be forced to survive without the services Damian Lillard for at least the next couple of weeks, The Portland Trail Blazers got thrown right back into the meat grinder, facing down yet another elite opponent on the road while trying to adjust on the fly to life without its star player.
The Milwaukee Bucks came into Monday’s contest owning the second best record in the NBA at 11-4. Aside from some silly ladder-related postgame nonsense following a Friday loss in Philly, they have looked very much like one of the teams to beat in the East. Suffice to say, the Blazers have not fared well at Fiserv Forum (or against the Bucks in general) over the past several years. Milwaukee has swept the series 4 out of the past 6 seasons, and up until a trap game upset featuring a “Sandlot” Blazers squad last February, Portland had not won in the Bucks’ house since March 2014, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rookie season.
The odds were not in Portland’s favor from the start and events played out accordingly, with Milwaukee cruising to a comfortable 119-111 win, sending the Blazers packing with a third-straight loss.
Anfernee Simons struggled again with his shot early, but heated up late and led the way for the Blazers with 29 points and 5 assists. Jerami Grant added 18 points and Josh Hart looked good with 17 points and 9 boards.
Shaedon Sharpe got the start in Dame’s absence but suffered through a poor shooting night, scoring only 2 points while going 1-9 from the field.
Giannis powered the Bucks with 37 points and 7 rebounds. He was too much to handle.
Here’s how the action went down.
Both teams leaned on their big men heavily in the early goings, with the result a virtual standstill. Jusuf Nurkic and Brook Lopez traded threes, body checks and hooks near the rim in what might as well have been a tall and sweaty game of H.O.R.S.E. With just over six minutes left, the score was deadlocked at 11-11 - Portland would probably take that.
When the well started to dry midway through the period and Nurk went to the bench, the offense started to open up for the rest of the team. Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant took turns attacking the defense and were effective enough to cancel out 9 points in the quarter from Antetokounmpo, who was a menace in the paint at the other end, although, somewhat by design.
The “Greek Freak” is many things, but a strong outside shooter is still not one of them. With that weakness sticking out like a glowing chunk of kryptonite, the Blazers spent even more time than usual deploying their aggressive zone defense, daring the Bucks to beat them from the perimeter. Milwaukee wasn’t heaving bricks, but they didn’t singe the nets either, and Portland even baited Giannis into a disrespectfully uncontested straightaway three attempt while otherwise managing to keep his impact manageable.
Justise Winslow was a jolt of energy off the bench, scoring the Blazers’ last 6 points of the quarter on tough, contested looks inside the paint, including a sky-high floater over several defenders and a fadeaway jumper just behind the foul line. Somehow, Portland ended up with a 32-30 lead after one.
The second quarter was hard fought and about as back and forth as you can get, as neither side managed to seize momentum for long. Simons continued to do his thing, peppering shots from all over the floor, though, struggling from long range. He had 11 points in the quarter and kept the Blazers in the driver’s seat for most of it, but it was only a matter of time before the Bucks would wake up.
Portland took good care of the ball early on, but found themselves paying for mistakes as Milwaukee ratcheted up the intensity. A careless pass into traffic by Winslow turned into a Lopez dunk at the other end, a defensive breakdown led to a wide open Pat Connaughton three and then another bad pass, this time from Grant became a transition three for Jevon Carter, which gave the Bucks a 53-52 lead with 3:26 remaining.
Milwaukee was deadly from beyond the arc in the period, with Lopez knocking down a pair, joining Connaughton, Carter and Bobby Portis with triples in the quarter. The Blazers were going to have to do more than tread water but were struggling to find strong swimmers and the tides were quickly receding.
A running baseline jumper at the buzzer from Simons kept it a one possession game, but Portland trailed heading into break 63-61.
Things started to unravel quickly in the third, as the Blazers’ offense arrived at a total dead end. Simons and Grant continued to be ice cold from deep while Milwaukee just jammed the ball into Antetokounmpo’s enormous hands and pointed him in the direction of the basket, where he was near unstoppable. Back-to-back buckets near the hoop from Grant midway through the period was the closest to in-rhythm the team got, but it was like trying to stop a flesh wound with tissue paper.
Everything was going Giannis’ way, as he willed the Bucks’ advantage to 6, then 8, then 11, then 12, you get the picture. Portland only managed 18 points in the quarter while Milwaukee showed no signs of slowing down. An Antetokounmpo dunk with 28 seconds left extended the deficit to 16 points and put the Blazers deep into a hole they would not be able to climb out of.
A 16-foot pull-up from Nassir Little before the horn helped cushion the blow, but Portland was looking at an uphill battle the rest of the way heading into the final frame trailing 93-79.
The Blazers could have rolled over and died, but to their credit, they stuck around in the fourth and made Milwaukee work for it. Simons started to heat up, scoring 9 of Portland’s first 11 points in the quarter, but he was matched nearly basket for basket by Jrue Holiday. The Blazer offense was back from the dead, but with six minutes remaining, had only managed to cut the deficit to 8 points, which is the closest they would get. A comeback was never truly threatened.
Stay tuned for our extended recap coming soon!
The Blazers will get a day off and then head to Cleveland to take on the Cavaliers Wednesday evening at 4 p.m. Pacific.