The stage, it seemed, was set for the reigning Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week to put on a star-studded, heavyweight, Monday night clash.
Within minutes, it became clear that Brook Lopez and the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks had other plans.
On the backs of Lopez’s 27-point, nine-rebound night, the Bucks walked into Moda Center and outclassed the Portland Trail Blazers from the opening whistle, en route to a wire-to-wire 127-108 win. The talented Bucks center had strong support in the form of Milwaukee’s two new All-Stars nominees with Giannis Antetokounmpo (24 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists) and Jrue Holiday (20 points, four rebounds, eight assists) helping lead the charge.
On the Blazers’ side, Portland was again led by Damian Lillard, who shook off a slow start to put together a 28-point, five-assist outing, with the other four Blazers starters also scoring in double-figures. The back-to-back losses move them to No. 11 out West. Here were a few other aspects that stood out in tonight’s defeat.
Splash Mountain vs. Mountain Drew?
As noted above, it’s difficult to kickstart tonight’s recap in any other form other than with Lopez’s performance. After failing to score in double-figures in each of the three games prior, the former one-time All-Star was threatening that number before the game’s first commercial break. Putting on his best Lew Alcindor impersonation, Lopez rendered the Blazers’ interior defense helpless with a perfect six-of-six performance inside the paint — hook shots, alley-oops, one-legged fadeaways, you name it — and still found time to drain a few 30-footers to keep Portland honest.
It further emphasized the growing problem with Portland’s paint protection. Over its last five games, only the Raptors are allowing a higher percentage in that range within five-to-nine feet away. Lopez had his average by halftime; there were enough points to divvy among himself, his brother Robin, and even George Lopez if we wanted some.
On the other end, Drew Eubanks sought to offer some level of a counter, largely due to how the Bucks’ defense played the likes of Lillard and Simons. Given their length and aggressiveness in denying screening angles, Milwaukee was able to force the ball out of their hands, leaving Eubanks with an array of open looks on his floaters and 10-footers, to which he obliged.
Bring Out the Bingo Boards:
When the Blazers have lost games at home — or really in general — it often boils down to one of three issues: (1) the 3-point shot just doesn’t drop, (2) a slow start, or (3) an incompetent effort on the defensive end. Not that this is necessarily rocket science, but each of those three problems plagued the Blazers once more in what could’ve been viewed as a litmus test-type game against an elite Bucks team.
Only five teams across the NBA average fewer first quarter points than Portland does, signifying that necessity that is getting games off on a hot note. Normally, Lillard takes that onus onto himself, but even he had some struggles, uncharacteristically missing pull-ups against the Bucks’ drop coverage. Portland has lost eight of its last 10 first quarters; tonight, they were thankful to only be down eight after this one. Unfortunately, the inability to win those minutes with Antetokounmpo on the bench or being able to trim the double-digit lead into something more manageable proved costly.
This one also felt painfully similar to the Jan. 28 duel against Toronto, with the Blazers digging themselves into a hole, and then the 3-point shot betraying them. Drive-and-kick opportunities to get the Moda Center into the game were there, but they just wouldn’t drop. The end result? A 9-of-36 finish from 3-point range. Credit to Lamar Hurd for this one: the Blazers are 0-10 when they fail to hit 10-plus 3-pointers. Some ghastly percentages at play here. Although, if we’re trying to find any sliver of positivity, there was this:
When David Beats Goliath:
To put it mostly simply: the Milwaukee Bucks start two players listed at 7-foot and above.
The Blazers, as currently constructed, didn’t have a player above 6-foot-9 capable of suiting up on Monday.
As one might expect, the box score told it better than a recap could; Milwaukee owned a 55-28(!!) edge on the glass, limiting the Blazers to just one offensive rebound. Surprisingly, the Blazers ended up winning the points in the paint battle — largely through exploiting that ability to get downhill against the Bucks’ drop. But, one team was bigger, badder, and ultimately better, and none of those synonyms applied to those in the Pacific Northwest.
On the year, the Blazers are 9-16 when they get outrebounded, compared to 17-12 when they do. Perhaps, with the trade deadline on the horizon, tonight’s loss reinforces some of the Blazers’ critical needs as it relates to size. Then, and only then, could it be viewed as perhaps a blessing in disguise.
— The Moda Center rims weren’t kind to Shaedon Sharpe in this one; he had a handful of wide-open or lightly-contested 3-pointers — the kinds he’s hit this year, and the kinds that would’ve helped the Blazers potentially make a run. Tonight, the talented rookie shot 0-of-6, his first scoreless night since Nov. 27.
— Turnovers. Surprisingly, the Blazers were careful, committing only nine giveaways. This had normally been a staple for Portland wins; before tonight, they were 4-1 when committing single-digit giveaways.
— And, speaking of turnovers, the Blazers’ defense, flawed as it was, did its part to some degree in forcing Antetokounmpo into a notable amount. They tried to go with the usual “send a wall” strategy, prompting him to become more of a facilitator for parts of this game. There were a handful of possessions in which Hart’s defense on him was promising; though, Antetokounmpo, as he often does, remained brilliant even despite taking just 14 shots.
The second game of a four-game homestand begins Wednesday, as the Blazers prepare for the Curry-less Golden State Warriors on Feb. 8 at 7:00 pm PT.
If you haven’t already, take a look at Dave Deckard’s instant recap of tonight’s loss.