The undermanned Portland Trail Blazers went toe-to-toe with the Milwaukee Bucks in the first half of Monday’s game at Fiserv Forum. While the wheels fell off of the proverbial bus in the third quarter, the team was able to avoid a blowout—ultimately falling 119-111 in the first of a four-game road trip.
Playing without star Damian Lillard due to injury, the Blazers had a number of strong performances, led by the 29-point effort from Anfernee Simons. Fellow starters Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, and Jusuf Nurkic joined him in double-figure scoring, along with reserve forward Trendon Watford.
But it was Giannis Antetokounmpo who’s star shone the brightest on the night. The “Greek Freak” went for 37 points, including 19 in the pivotal third quarter, to lead the Bucks to the surprisingly hard-fought victory.
For a quarter-by-quarter breakdown, see our Instant Recap. Here were the key takeaways from Monday’s action in Milwaukee.
The Blazers swung out of the gates with an upset in mind, giving the Bucks a healthy does of Nurkic—who scored the team’s first seven points—in the early going. Hart soon got in on the act, pushing the pace in transition and attacking the rim with authority. While both teams struggled with long-distance shooting, Portland in particular dominated inside the arc. It was a balanced scoring attack, with players up and down the rotation getting involved and the ball moving. All told, Portland shot 57% from the field in the first half, trailing by two at the break.
Defensively, the Blazers featured a heavy dose of zone. While there were a few breakdowns early, they started to clamp down and clean up their rotations as the reserves trickled into the game. The Bucks still scored—primarily at the rim—but the effort was clearly there.
The Freak Unleashed
NBA fans know that you can’t stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, you can only hope to contain him. The Blazers contained him in the first half, holding him to a relatively pedestrian 13 points. The third quarter was a different story. Sensing his team needed a boost, Giannis kicked his game into another gear. He quite literally took over the game, outscoring the Blazers 19-18 in the frame, with his only blemishes coming at the foul line. With Blazer defenders ceding space to avoid the drive, he did most of his damage in the midrange.
On top of the Giannis takeover, Portland’s offense struggled mightily in the third, as they were just 6-24 from the field, and struggled to take care of the ball. In addition, a pair of defensive breakdowns put them behind the eight ball early in the half. The disparity gave the Bucks the separation they couldn’t get in the first half, and was enough to propel them to the finish line.
Only the most relentlessly optimistic of Blazer maniacs could have expected a Portland victory against arguably the league’s top team, especially with Lillard out. While they weren’t able to pull off the upset, there were more positives than negatives to pull from the game. That’s something you typically don’t take from a loss.
The Blazers could have easily folded after the 30-18 third quarter saw them trailing by 14 heading into the final stretch. However, Simons took control of the offense to keep the game close. More importantly, Portland kept the ball moving, instead of pressing into isolation hero-ball, especially when shots weren’t falling in the third quarter. A loss is a loss, but they aren’t all created equal. Put this one in the “closer than expected” category.
The Blazers’ road trip continues on Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tip-off is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. PT from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.