The Portland Trail Blazers knew they would face the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night without MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. The all-world superstar was held out of the game with ankle pain. That was fine, though, since Milwaukee still featured Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and plenty of championship experience. The Blazers sported a rag-tag band of trade acquisition pick-ups, gathered into a team the same way colonists gathered around the Galactica after the Cylons destroyed their home worlds. Maybe there was something there, but the odds were long.
Fortunately, though, the Blazers got plenty of help from “Starbuck” Anfernee Simons (31 points, 7-16 on threes) and “Apollo” Jusuf Nurkic (23 points, 16 rebounds). Those two stars, at the head of a plucky, hard-charging squadron of bench fliers, managed to do the impossible, unseating the world champs in the heart of their impregnable base star, earning a 122-107 victory in a game that wasn’t close.
Portland put all their starters in double figures, including Josh Hart, who scored 27 on 10-16 shooting. 42% accuracy from the three-point arc didn’t hurt, nor did forcing 13 turnovers and scoring a healthy 17 points on the run.
The Blazers tried to reprise their recent success by getting the ball inside to Jusuf Nurkic at the start of the game, playing off of him for short shots or kick-outs to shooters. But Nurkic couldn’t score against Milwaukee’s defense and neither Josh Hart nor Anfernee Simons hit their threes. That left the Blazers depending on, well, mostly hopes and dreams to carry them onward.
Milwaukee attacked the rim with gusto, but they looked like a team warming up for the game more than one fully prepared for it. They got layups, but missed most of them.
The convergence of those trends left the score low and close for the first four minutes. Milwaukee led 8-7 at the 8:00 mark. But it wasn’t hard to guess which team’s issues would resolve more quickly and easily, should the trends continue.
The Blazers got a reprieve when Nurkic got hot midway through the quarter. He hit a three—the only make in Portland’s first seven attempts—and scored inside, providing his team’s only points, practically. The Blazers also scored a couple times on the run. That allowed them to survive their first shift relatively well. Not getting toasted by Antetokounmpo every second possession sure helped. The Blazers led 31-30 after one.
Portland came out in the second period intent on building their lead. At this point, there’s no delusion of their bench being as talented or experienced as their counterparts’. They are young, springy, and fast, though, Leaning into their strengths, they plied the passing lanes, looking to force turnovers, streaking down the floor as fast as possible as soon as they touched the ball. The Bucks weren’t going to succumb to this forever, but you know what? Their bench players aren’t young and springy anymore. As a result, Portland was able to score past and over the opponent even when they couldn’t score on them.
Unfortunately Portland’s defense didn’t live up to the speed offense. They couldn’t seal the wind tunnel pointing towards the rim that the Bucks appeared to be gliding on. They got sucked deep into the lane and either scored on or passed around for open threes. Even though the Blazers’ bench offense looked as good as it has all season, Milwaukee had no trouble keeping close.
Portland got them back, though. They cleaned up the boards with consistency, allowing the Bucks only one shot. They also cut and passed into the interior, preventing Milwaukee’s defense from keying in. As a result, they generated as many halfcourt layups as the Bucks did. When Hart started hitting threes, the recipe became complete. When Simons hit three triples in a row, it got the infusion of hot sauce that perfected it. Portland built a 17-point lead deep in the second and walked into the locker room up 71-54.
Holy unexpected developments, Batman. Stay tuned.
The Bucks entered the third period more focused, ready to handle the upstart Blazers with a balanced, steady approach. That went right out the window when Justise Winslow and Jusuf Nurkic hit threes. Those are the shots Milwaukee wanted Portland to take. Watching them fall sucked the air right out of the building for the home team.
Milwaukee stuck with the basics, though. They stopped shooting in isolation, giving up the slow-down, matchup-advantage approach to their offense that had typified the first half. Instead they pushed inside the key, either scoring or passing to the arc for a three. It seemed like every shot for them came within 6 feet or outside 22. That efficiency did wonders for them.
The Bucks also did a much better job cutting off Portland’s lane scoring, both in the halfcourt and on the break. The torrent of points in the second quarter dried up in the third.
But Portland still had an out, as their three-pointers continued to fall. When all else failed, that kept their lead alive. Simons, Hart, and Winslow combined to lift their team near 50% from the arc. With 2:00 remaining in the period, the Blazers had hit only 7 field goals total, but 5 of them came beyond the arc.
The way the game was going, you’d expect Milwaukee would have trimmed the lead to 8. Instead, it was 14...too far for comfort for a Bucks team that was doing everything they were supposed to.
Thanks to those threes, the Blazers led 94-78 after three, all ready to cruise to another upset victory.
The champs were not going down without a fight, especially not at home. Milwaukee began the fourth period by clamping down even harder on defense, particularly in the lane. They turned “few” Portland points inside into “none”. On the other end, the Bucks charged hard inside, giving up jumpers in favor of drives. They didn’t just convert, they got fouled too, putting on points at the charity stripe with no time running off the clock.
Within four minutes, Milwaukee had Portland’s lead down to 8. After a whole game of running and flying, Portland looked fatigued on defense. They didn’t rotate well or help each other on penetration. They weren’t going to win this game going away, or even head-to-head. They needed some kind of heroics to keep them alive.
Once again Simons stepped up to the plate, hitting jumpers and threes that Milwaukee didn’t mind in the abstract, but couldn’t stop on the actual floor.
Portland led 107-98 with 5:26 remaining when Bobby Portis, Jr. got to Nurkic late on a catch in the lane. Missing his swipe at the ball, Portis, Jr. instead grabbed the back of Nurkic’s jersey and pulled him to the floor for a Flagrant 1 call. That play was symbolic of the whole evening. No matter how the Bucks tried to stop the Blazers, nothing was working. It was time for frustration and desperation. On the very next play, the Bucks turned over the ball for another foul and free throws to Portland. That underlined the point, perhaps sealing it as well. If not, a Nurkic dunk on the very next possession did. The Blazers played out the string, no doubt said, “See you in the Finals!” and walked out of Milwaukee victorious.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game, coming soon!
The Blazers head to Memphis to face the Grizzlies on Wednesday night at 5:00 PM, Pacific.