The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night short Jusuf Nurkic, a workable game plan, or any ability to defend inside. They had one chance, to pour in so many three pointers that no team could withstand them.
Unfortunately, the Blazers shot 9-36 from distance. Milwaukee opened a lead behind their inside scoring prowess, then chased the Blazers off the arc and dared them to do the same. Portland had a few pretty plays, but little success against the defensively-apt, offensively implacable Bucks. Milwaukee walked away with a fairly easy 127-108 victory.
Damian Lillard scored 28 in the loss. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 24 with 13 rebounds. Milwaukee center Brook Lopez added 27 and 9. For those counting, that’s 22 rebounds for them. Portland had 27 rebounds total in the game. Yup. That’s how it went.
The first quarter went about as you’d expect it to. Giannis scored by throwing it to himself off the backboard and dunking on the second play of the game, which showed how Milwaukee was prepared to attack and how helpless the Blazers’ defense was going to be to stop it. With the referees seemingly intent on forming a whistle choir on the spot—a condition which would persist throughout the half—the Bucks poured in points alternating inside shots and free throws. By the 8:40 mark they had built a 14-3 lead.
But a couple of funny things happened on the way to the rout. First, the Blazers finally got honest with themselves, admitting that there was no way to keep up with the Bucks score for score. Instead, they emphasized the only clear advantage they had, driving and then dishing out for three-pointers. Portland’s first three makes were triples from Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, and Jerami Grant. Those shots spread Milwaukee’s defense and eased up the inside opportunities, which the Blazers then began to capitalize on.
Second, even though Portland’s starters weren’t going to best their Milwaukee counterparts, hard work by some of the ancillary players began to pay dividends, even against Antetokounmpo. They lined up two and three defenders along Giannis’ vertical path, forcing him to give it up. That left only Jrue Holiday as a a huge threat. One man on him was enough to keep him from going ham. Milwaukee’s other scorers did keep the points rolling, but the Blazers were getting beat, not destroyed.
Avoiding the pressure, the Bucks hit enough long balls themselves to push the score to 30-22 after one. It could have been a lot worse, given the start.
Portland’s bench players did an incredible job keeping the Bucks out of the paint during the first minutes of the second period. Antetokounmpo resting had something to do with it, but plain old resolve kept Milwaukee on the perimeter.
That should have been a huge advantage for Portland, but a couple of twists marred the party. First, the Bucks actually hit 3 of their first 8 three-pointers in the period. Second, Portland missed all seven of theirs in the same span. Even a couple of nice inside looks from Simons weren’t enough to make up for the utter lack of success outside. By the time Head Coach Chauncey Billups called an, “Uh Oh” timeout with 5:24 left in the second, the Bucks had outscored the Blazers 15-8 and led by 15, 45-30.
After that, Hart hit a corner three to break the ice. That was a relief. But by that time, Antetokounmpo was back in, making mincemeat out of Portland’s halfcourt defense. Between him and Brook Lopez, the Blazers’ lack of size was exposed. They pretty much played a two-man game, daring Portland to do anything to bother them.
At that point, Damian Lillard came alive, driving twice, then hitting a three from 40 feet out. Portland chipped the lead down to a dozen. Two free throws from Lillard with 2.3 seconds remaining in the half pushed him past the legendary Bob McAdoo on the NBA All-Time scoring list. They also brought Portland within 10, 58-48, at the half.
Milwaukee’s game plan coming out in the third was plain and effective: grind down the pace, making everybody work hard and burn clock for possessions. They accomplished this fairly easily, chasing the Blazers off of the three-point arc. Through the first six minutes of the period, Portland attempted only two threes. They continued to convert layups and pull-ups, often drawing fouls, but the whole process was labored and very un-Portland-like.
Giannis drew his fourth foul with 7:31 remaining in the period. That only seemed to intensify the Bucks’ commitment to ugly-ing up the game. They were going to win any kind of paint duel. Them also winning the three-point shooting contest—hitting four to zero for the Blazers during this span—added insult to injury. The blessed mandatory timeout with 3:41 remaining saw Milwaukee’s lead extended to 17, 83-66. Portland had only scored 18 points in the first 8:19 of the frame.
The story wouldn’t change during the final minutes either. The Bucks’ stalemate tactics proved perfect. They savaged the Blazers in the paint as the clock dwindled, watching Portland shake and sweat trying to do the same. Simons hit a nice dipsy-doodle and-one in the lane with 18 seconds left to rescue a little bit of momentum but the Blazers still trailed 95-71 after three.
Giannis picked up his fifth foul before a minute had expired in the fourth period. The Bucks left him in, no doubt anticipating being able to pull their entire starting lineup before the quarter got too old. Lillard opened the period with a three, then got fouled on another. His teammates continued pressing inside and drawing whistles, now knowing that scoring with the clock stopped was their best hope.
Milwaukee shrugged off Portland’s effort with hardly a thought. They drew Portland’s defense inside, then passed out to laughably-open shooters. They didn’t always connect, but up 20+, they didn’t have to. The occasional three was enough to send the scoreboard dancing out of Portland’s reach.
By the 7:00 mark, people stopped wondering whether the Blazers could come back and started asking why the starters were anywhere near the floor anymore.
Stay tuned for extended analysis coming soon!
The Blazers will welcome the struggling Golden State Warriors to the Moda Center on Wednesday night in a game featuring a 7:00 PM start.