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Observations from the Blazers’ Improbable Win Over the Bucks

Portland shocked Milwaukee and the world. Here’s how it happened.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers beat the defending NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks 122-107 on Monday night, an upset win on Milwaukee’s home floor. The Bucks played without Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Portland still wasn’t expected to come up with a win, let alone a convincing one. And yet they did, pushing their current winning streak to three games... no small feat after trading away half of their rotation at last week’s NBA Trade Deadline.

Many of you probably missed one of the best games of the year, as you were out on Valentine’s Day dates. As Nelson Muntz would say, “Ha ha!” That’s what you get for not being single and desperately lonely. You can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here to repair that gaping heartache in your Blazers life.

After you’ve caught up on the action, here are other observations from the victory.

Winslow and Hart

Josh Hart and Justise Winslow continue to open eyes with their energetic approach to the game.

Winslow stood in strong on both ends tonight, operating in the lane with a bull-ish energy that the Blazers haven’t had in a while. He’s not an individual stopper, but when he plants in the key, opponents have to go around him, not through. When he comes to help, he is more than capable of rejecting layups and dunks no matter who tries to throw them down. On offense, Winslow is a constant threat to rebound. He also knows how to hang by the rim for passes and conversions. His ability to find an open man when covered is a serious bonus.

Hart had a few exciting plays in Milwaukee, including a quintet of three-point strikes. But his most promising attribute may be the ability to grab a rebound on one end, wheel, then lead the offensive attack on the break without finding a guard. That kind of end-to-end play makes Portland faster, one of their keys to success right now. On paper, you’d never match Hart up against Serge Ibaka or Greg Monroe. But fast-forward the play to the rebound, let Hart get a chance at it, and what do you think is going to happen in that matchup?

Hart scored 27 points on ultra-efficient 10-16 shooting from the field against the Bucks. That’s wow-time.

Air Force

Portland’s bench provided a platform for the team to build on tonight. Those are words I never thought I’d string together, but here we are.

The Blazers’ reserves are not famous. They’re not accomplished. They’re not even that talented yet, compared to their counterparts. But the bench has three things going for them: they’re quick, they can jump, and they don’t know that they’re supposed to lose (nor would they care if they did, probably).

Instead of losing momentum when the starters checked out tonight, the Blazers gained it. Their Air Force reserves went fast and flew high. The formula is simple: grab a rebound or force a turnover, run like heck, get the ball to whomever has a lane to the bucket. If the opponent collapses to cut off those lanes, pass out for a three. It’s amazing how well that worked against the Bucks. Milwaukee was older, wiser, and expected to win the game no matter what. Those assets looked like deficits as the Blazers dunked over their heads.

Let’s not kid ourselves: smart teams are going to solve this. It’s just a matter of getting back on defense. But if you don’t get back against THESE Blazers, prepare for a world of hurt.

Possession Game

It’s weird to talk about the Blazers depending on a ball-control game. Usually that’s the province of the more talented, established, matchup-based lineup. With this roster, that’s almost never Portland.

But the Blazers do thrive off of ball-control in a sense: limiting opponent opportunities while generating their own. The first key to this is defensive rebounding. They gave up only 6 offensive boards to the Bucks tonight, even when out-sized by a considerable margin in the frontcourt. The second is turnovers. They forced 13 and scored 17 off of them, not spectacular, but solid.

With those two approaches on the menu, Portland stirs in the secret ingredient: the running attack mentioned just above. Once they have their hands on the ball, they want to be six seconds from a conversion, making it impossible for the opponent to match their rebounding and turnover advantages in return.

Portland isn’t shooting a better percentage than their opposition. They just don’t defend or shoot well enough to pull that off on a nightly basis. But they make up for it by generating more field goals than the other guys. 45% of 100 field goals is the same as 50% of 90. That extra “5%” comes without the Blazers actually shooting more accurately. It’s one of the few methods they can use to overcome the holes on their roster, and they’re doing it marvelously.

The Blazers put up 99 field goal attempts to Milwaukee’s 89 tonight. They won handily because they shot much better from the arc than the Bucks did, but even without that advantage, they still would have had an avenue to victory because of their volume production.

Caveats

Lest we think this approach is sustainable, we should underline that the Blazers are still lacking in the basics. Their current attack gives them a puncher’s chance in any game, but it’s not going to ensure them long-term victories.

Portland’s lineups are quicker and more energetic than they were at the start of the season. You’d think that would translate into better defense, or at least the ability to crowd shooters while still holding fast in the lane. They’re somewhat better...we’ll give them that. Anfernee Simons had some strong close-outs on distance shooters tonight. But they’re still in the old trap of having to pick lane or arc defense. Nurkic isn’t strong enough to hold the paint by himself. Portland can collapse or cover threes, but they’re still loose when they have to do both. And when they tire, they do neither well. The Blazers allowed 28 points in transition, 48 total in the paint, and Milwaukee wasn’t really trying to run or win it inside.

Portland lacked quickness and drive early in the season. They have those two qualities now, but they still don’t have cohesion, decision-making, or individual stopping power. It’s much more fun to watch them scramble now than it was to watch them stand still as shots lofted over their heads back then, but the results will probably be similar this season. Maybe, just maybe, they have something to build on for years to come with this energy. That’s hope, at least.

The Blazers also remain three-point dependent, with a roster that is probably not suited to sustain same. The last few games have had similar tones. Portland hasn’t made threes early. The offense has suffered, looking rough and intermittent. Then, almost as if by magic, they get on a roll beyond the arc. That makes them world-beaters. It also opens up the lane and they often produce huge quarters. Then they stay on a hot streak and cruise or they lose it and have to hang on for dear life. Three-pointers tend to decide which.

Portland’s prettiest plays still happen off passes and cuts, but those plays don’t matter unless the triples are coming thick and fast.

Sustaining an excellent rate of distance shooting over the final third of the season will be an interesting test for this team. If they can manage it, the future looks much brighter. Maybe they can build on some of these players...Hart, in particular. If they regress to a poor shooting percentage, they’ll be forced to make the same kind of compromises that hamstrung their last decade: Do they go with scorers who can’t defend or defenders who can’t score?

Superstar Simons

Anfernee Simons put up another impressive line tonight: 31 points on 12-24 shooting, 7-16 from the arc. High-shot-attempt games are to him what spinach is to Popeye. Though the team erected the underpinnings for this win, Simons stood atop the pinnacle and made sure they actually grasped victory as it flew by.

Every time the Bucks narrowed the gap, via smart play and execution, Simons canned a couple threes, via being Anfernee Freakin’ Simons. His willingness to take, and hit, decisive shots screams “NBA Star”. Tonight, he was every bit of it. The Blazers as a whole made the game tough for Milwaukee, but Simons made it impossible.

Khris Middleton

Khris Middleton is an awesome player and Milwaukee’s heart when Giannis is out. Tonight he shot 3-15, 1-8 from the arc. It looked like the Blazers had his name underlined on the white board. Good defense or an off night? Either way, it sure helped.

CJ Elleby

We don’t mention CJ Elleby much here, but his aggression tonight was one of the bright spots for Portland. He always goes at it hard, but up until now, it’s been like a goldfish in a cement factory. You notice the energetic flopping, but this isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps adopting Hart, Winslow, et al. into the fold will give Elleby a bit more of a purchase. Either way, let’s take the opportunity to remember him on a good night.

Up Next

Boxscore

The Blazers head to Memphis to face the Grizzlies on Wednesday night at 5:00 PM, Pacific.