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Tale of Two Halves Dooms Trail Blazers vs. Bucks, Lillard

The Trail Blazers dominated, until they didn’t.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers led former franchise great Damian Lillard and the title-contending Milwaukee Bucks by 26 in the second half on Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee.

The Trail Blazers still lost the game, 108-102.

Portland came out on fire from deep and wreaked havoc on defense, forcing turnovers and creating fastbreak points. On the other side, Lillard looked out of sorts in his first matchup against his former team; his teammates did, too, for much of the game.

In the end, Lillard and new superstar teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo got the last laugh, shaping up in time to lead the Bucks to the largest comeback in the NBA this season. Portland cratered back to Earth on offense in the second half, slowly unraveling before getting knocked out in crunch time, with the help of a suspect overturned call from the officials in the final minute.

Portland was led by 22 points on 7-18 shooting from Jerami Grant and Malcolm Brogdon’s 18-point, 12-assist performance on 7-23 shooting from the field. Rookie Scoot Henderson added 13 points and one assist off the bench, going 3-4 (!) from 3-point land.

Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 36 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. Lillard shot 7-21 from the field, but still finished with 31 points. The All-Star duo went 24-32 combined from the free throw line.

If you missed the game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After you’ve read that, here are the details that defined the contest.

Tale of Two Halves

Getting the obvious out of the way first, this game felt like two completely different games packed into one. The first half was beautiful, glorious even, as the Trail Blazers were clicking on both sides of the ball. In the opening 24 minutes, Portland, the NBA’s worst 3-point shooting team, shot 10-17 on 3-pointers. Half of those 3s came from unlikely sources, as Henderson and fellow rookie Toumani Camara combined for five 3s on 100% shooting. With active hands swiping at the ball and Matisse Thybulle intercepting passes like Kenny Wheaton, Portland generated 10 turnovers and eight steals, leading to 20 points off turnovers and 16 fastbreak points. The Trail Blazers, a team that has struggled to eclipse the 100-point mark throughout the season, registered 54 points midway through the second quarter and led 68-52 at intermission.

The party continued to start the third quarter, with Portland extending the lead to 81-55 with 9:09 remaining. I genuinely contemplated if Milwaukee rookie Head Coach Adrian Griffin would still have a job in the morning. Then, things flipped — first slowly, then fast.

Portland made only one more 3-pointer for the remainder of the game, finishing the second half 3-15. The movement on offense stalled, giving way to unsuccessful iso ball, standing and watching, especially late in the fourth quarter. Portland shot 27.9% from the field in the second half for 34 points, including just 14 in the final period. The easy fastbreak points (five) went away, so did the points off turnovers (seven). The Bucks didn’t shoot that much better in the second half than they did in the first, but were able to systematically break the lead down over time with free throws and timely 3-point makes from Bobby Portis and Lillard.

Dame v. Scoot: Dawn of Justice

Lillard said in the lead up to this first matchup with his former team that it felt like any other game. His play on Sunday didn’t reflect that calm demeanor. Lillard started the game 0-4 from the field on pretty clean looks. The biggest piece of evidence that Dame might’ve felt odd playing against Portland came when he blew a wide-open dunk on a fast break late in the first quarter. Lillard picked up his play as the game went along, but he never found a steady rhythm and certainly never unleashed any of the game-changing scoring barrages Portland fans became accustomed to over the years. His stat line was largely saved by a 13-14 performance from the charity stripe.

Henderson, on the other hand, played one of his steadiest games. The 3-4 performance from deep jumps off the page, especially since Scoot entered the game as an 8.3% 3-point shooter. The first triple came on a step-back from the corner over Lillard. Lillard didn’t even throw up a phantom hand to contest the shot, issuing a challenge to his replacement, and Henderson drilled it. All of Henderson’s makes were confident swishes; even the one he missed was straight but long.

Outside of the vast improvement in shooting, Henderson looked his most in control as a Trail Blazer. He was less sped up with the ball and opted to make the easy pass, rather than force something that wasn’t there. That approach led to a 5-10 performance from the field and just two turnovers in 27 minutes. Henderson registered only one assist, but his teammates left some Scoot assists on the table with open misses.

Henderson closed the game for Portland, getting valuable crunch-time minutes. He largely deferred to Brogdon, but he played solid defense. At the very least, it doesn’t look like Scoot will be a liability on that end who teams can mismatch-hunt into oblivion.

Matisse Thybulle: Defensive Wizard

Back in October at training camp, Trail Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups referred to Matisse Thybulle as a “wizard” on defense due to his ability to make stuff happen. After starting the season slow, Thybulle started to show what Billups was talking about with his defensive imprint in recent weeks. Thybulle’s performance against the Bucks was the biggest display of his wizard-like abilities. The disruption Portland caused in the first half was largely a reflection of Tisse.

Thybulle got his hands involved on most of Portland’s breakaways, whether he was applying pressure on driving guards or holding his own on help side D in the post. He registered four steals and one block, to go along with eight deflections. That type of defensive impact was strong enough to make Thybulle Portland’s MVP of the game, despite the forward only scoring five points.

Brogdon.

Out of all the Trail Blazers tonight, Brogdon maybe best exemplified the tale of two halves phenomenon. Midway through the third quarter, as I jotted down notes for potential sections in this recap, I wrote “Brogdon!” because the veteran guard was again showing how valuable he is for this team. At half, Brogdon recorded 12 points on solid efficiency, along with eight assists. He was hitting 3s and getting into the lane for crafty finishes, as well as playing some of the strongest post defense from a Trail Blazers guard since Andre Miller blew up Blake Griffin in the post over a decade ago.

Once the game ended, I kept Brogdon’s name in my notes, but just removed the exclamation point. The veteran had a rough close to the game. As the offense continued to struggle, Portland put more and more of the burden on Brogdon to bail everybody out. As the game tightened in crunch time, the offense became simple: set up Brogdon with mismatches on the perimeter and watch him try to create off the dribble. It didn’t work. Brogdon shot 1-4 in the third quarter and 2-9 in the fourth quarter. He didn’t get to the free throw line once. You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself shoot inefficiently...or something like that.

Secaucus Swindlers

Even with the dreadful shooting in the second half, the Trail Blazers had built up such a big lead they still had a chance to win in the end. That chance evaporated with a reversed foul call in the closing seconds. After Milwaukee took a 104-102 advantage with under 20 seconds left to play, Brogdon drove to the basket for a layup, drawing Antetokounmpo’s sixth foul and two free throws. Milwaukee challenged the call and won the review. The refs said Giannis got the ball first on his block attempt and all contact before the attempt was minimal or incidental. Instead of two game-tying free throws, Portland went to mid-court for a jump ball that they lost, effectively ending the game.

The refs didn’t cost the Trail Blazers the game. Portland’s poor shooting did that. BUT, this was a gigantic call the refs got wrong, and it represents a larger problem for the league with the review process. My primary issue is refs go all game calling ticky-tack fouls against the defense, awarding advantages to the offensive player at every turn. Then, when the game is on the line during the review process — a process that requires conclusive video evidence to overturn calls — refs then find the gall to make gutsy calls and let defenders play with some contact. If that foul against Giannis was able to be conclusively overturned, then don’t make that same call a dozen times throughout the same game and all season. Also, maybe more importantly, as Danny Marang pointed out, it doesn’t seem like NBA refs are consistent with their own rules.

Boxscore

The Trail Blazers are back in action on Monday for a road game against the Indiana Pacers. Tip-off is scheduled for a little after 4 p.m. PST.