Game 17 at MIL: Unpredictable only in the details

The only thing off-script about this game is that the outcome looked to be in some doubt until halfway through the third quarter. Portland was expected to lose, and they lost. The predicted margin of victory was 9½, and the Bucks won by 8, 111-119. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a monster, and Jusuf Nurkic wasn't.

Whatever the case, the Blazers left no impression of wanting to take people by surprise.

With six games left in the current phase of the season—five played on the road, after a brief homestand following a six-game trip—the question remains: how many wins can the Dame-less Trail Blazers wring out of a rough stretch?


Fool's gold on the arc

While the other BEdge stories about this game call the reader's attention to three-point shooting—out of habit, maybe—the fact of the matter is that performance beyond the arc was subpar all around. Portland had eight makes and Milwaukee nine. There was a drop in attempts, too—and not for lack of looks. Instead, both teams appeared most interested in closing in on the basket.

When one team has Giannis Antetokounmpo and the other doesn't have Damian Lillard, it takes little imagination to grasp how that goes. In that respect, the only surprise is that Portland didn't take even more punishment in low-post play.

Rebounds, but…

The good news is that the Blazers held their own rebounding the ball. It's difficult to see anything extraordinary in Portland's success: it appears that the Bucks count on their length to generate second chances, while placing higher priority for getting back down the court and setting defense. They're leading the Association in defensive rating, so there's no doubt that's working for them.

The fact remains that if a longer opponent wants to deny the low post to the Blazers, the opponent will most likely succeed. Drew Eubanks and Jusuf Nurkic are doing their best to push back—in Eubanks' case quite literally, as determined as he is to maintain some degree of personal space on the court—but unless and until the Get There First cohort claims more than one member, the Blazers can only be counted upon to rebound well against teams more their own size.

Active hands

The good news is that the Blazers continued to increase their degree of care with the ball, however incrementally. The bad news is that they were easy to bother. Twelve steals out of 15 turnovers suggests that the official scorekeeper applied a generous interpretation of "steal", but "bothered" also describes many of the Blazers' missed shots. Closeouts went not-entirely-complete, which is nothing to be ashamed of when it's Anfernee Simons taking the shot—but too often with Simons and other shooters just getting in front of the shot was enough to cause a miss.

Where turnovers are concerned, one is led to ask if perhaps the Blazers need to live by the wise words of Master Yoda:

Do, or do not; there is no "try".

Right now the Blazers are in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't place. Either they're focussed on pushing the ball and shooting, and getting nailed on sloppy passes—or they're focussed on taking care of the ball, and overreacting however slightly when an opposing player looks like they're going to make a play on the ball. With appropriate coaching the Blazers can wriggle out of that corner, but it's probably going to take time.

"Good" in the midrange

The Blazers proved themselves entirely able to make shots from the band 10-15 feet distant from the basket, when given enough space. If anything, their late third quarter collapse came because they went back to the orthodox approach and kept trying to get the ball to the low post.

This isn't the first time we've seen an undersized Blazers roster develop a reliance on midrange jumpshooting; they also leaned hard into the midrange after after Wes Matthews was injured, and until Jusuf Nurkic arrived.

However, however smoothly they might go in, the team offense that leads into those shots looks especially tentative. This is especially evident with Jerami Grant on the ball; he can generally be counted upon to pull up and raise, not drive, if there's more than one man in front of him.


  • Against Portland, the Bucks have the complete package: plenty of jumpshooters, plenty of length, and solid passing. It's almost suspicious that this game wasn't a bloodbath, but it's impossible this morning to tease out what mental battle the Blazers won to keep themselves in this game for as long as they did. There appears to be a hard floor on the measure by which the Blazers will merely go through the motions in a game that's going badly.
  • Milwaukee is the latest in a series of teams to enjoy success against the Blazers' defense by passing the ball laterally faster than individual defenders can keep up. As pleasantly surprising as the Blazers' defense has been this season, it's still a work in progress absent the one player—apart perhaps from Jusuf Nurkic—best able to make a contribution to the team effort in the man-to-man.
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anfernee Simons were the standouts on offense last night. Giannis is clearly getting some help out of his mild case of the yips, while the Bucks' defense essentially forced Ant to put the team on his back in the second half. One lesson that this game reinforces is that if Ant can develop a game on the drive to match his jumpshooting—and start generating free throws that way—the Blazers' offense overall will have a much easier time of it.
  • The box score reveals that Milwaukee (31 assists) was passing better and sharper than the Blazers (19 assists). Again, the real surprise is that this game was not a bloodbath.

The upstream rowing continues tomorrow night in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers as a team have been following a trajectory familiar to Blazers fans. It'll be Ant and Grant vs. K-Love and Mitchell, and this one should actually be a good game in spite of the fact that the sims are even more dispiriting than against Milwaukee. The game broadcast starts at 4 p.m. PST.