The Portland Trail Blazers welcomed Damian Lillard and the Milwaukee Bucks to the Moda Center in fine style on Wednesday night, standing toe-to-toe with the championship contenders and refusing to back down even an inch. Milwaukee carries a reputation for sketchy defense. They did nothing to disprove it tonight.
Guards Scoot Henderson and Anfernee Simons carved into them like a venison roast. Portland’s interior play remained strong as well. They scored 56 in the paint, taking advantage of another Milwaukee weakness.
Damian Lillard scored 25 in his first homecoming in an enemy uniform, but Henderson countered with 15 and Simons 24. Portland’s frontcourt players showed strong as well. Deandre Ayton had 20 and Jerami Grant 18.
As everybody expected, the driving story of the game bore the initials “D.L.” In a twist of fate, though the “D” stood for defense...Milwaukee didn’t play much. And the L? Portland hung one on the Bucks, 119-116.
The Blazers shot 53.3% from the field, 42.9% from the arc, and countered Milwaukee’s 19-9 free throw attempt advantage by shooting 100% from the charity stripe.
What a night. What a win. If you’re in a good mood because of it, consider donating a couple of tickets so kids in need can see these Blazers play later this spring. See that just below, then enjoy reading how the victory unfolded.
If the Blazers were going to be intimidated by the Bucks, they had a funny way of showing it. Jabari Walker hit a three to start the game (in contrast to the two logo attempts Lillard was about to miss), helping Portland to a 3-5 start from the field and a 7-2 lead with 2:00 gone.
After that, the Bucks got un-stupid, going to Giannis inside for unstoppable shots. That brought them back right away. It also opened up the three-point arc for Milwaukee. Khris Middleton and Malik Beasley hit from deep, and suddenly the faucet was wide open for the Bucks. At the 6:31 mark, they had come all the way back to take a 17-14 lead, prompting Head Coach Chauncey Billups to break the momentum with a timeout.
Anfernee Simons kept the Blazers rolling, hitting quick threes like Damian Lillard once did on this hardwood. Deandre Ayton also chipped in from the lane. Portland’s offense looked nice. Or, perhaps, Milwaukee’s defense didn’t.
Brook Lopez hit threes to put the Bucks up again, but Scoot Henderson and Duop Reath both scored on layups/dunks, completely unafraid. The atmosphere in the Moda Center seemed almost joyous as both teams threw haymakers with abandon.
When Reath hit a three with 1:18 remaining, Portland stood within 1, 33-32. Milwaukee went on a mini-run to push the lead to six again, but Henderson splashed a three at the buzzer, completing an 11-point period, contrasted to Lillard’s 8. Milwaukee led 38-37 after one.
Portland’s second unit hit three shots to begin the second quarter, keeping up the pressure on their high-profile visitors. They knotted the score, then engaged in a running dogfight with Milwaukee over the next few minutes. Portland managed a couple leads. but Giannis proved a trump card to whatever they mustered, scoring or getting to the line with impunity.
The Blazers scored their 50th point just after the 8:00 mark of the second period. They’ve played games without scoring that much in the entire first half. A persistent interior attack yielded pleasant results. Milwaukee countered with more threes. The scoring fest was on.
To Milwaukee’s credit, they started getting multiple defenders into the lane, making Portland’s layup tries more difficult. Henderson and Simons both got to the cup, but couldn’t convert clean. A three from Matisse Thybulle loosened things up again. Then Jerami Grant converted in the middle. Portland led 58-57 at the timeout juncture with 3:52 remaining in the half.
If anybody was going to play real defense, at least for an extended period, it’d have to wait for the second half. The teams missed shots, but it was almost by accident, not necessarily from pressure. When the halftime buzzer sounded, Portland led 67-65 at the half.
The “Uh Oh” meter started spiking at the start of the third quarter as Damian Lillard hit an assassin three to start the scoring. Twin buckets from Giannis made it drift even farther into the red. But Jerami Grant hit a layup, then drew a foul in the lane to help his team weather the storm. When Grant dunked off of a Lillard turnover on the next play, Milwaukee was reaching for umbrellas themselves. Portland led 77-74 at the timeout with 8:21 remaining.
The teams finally started missing some of their shots in the middle moments of the third. Milwaukee still scored inside but couldn’t hit a three to save their souls. Portland’s offense was even more limited. It was the restricted area or nothing.
Once again Matisse Thybulle broke the spell, hitting a three with 3:40 remaining, putting Portland up 5 again. Then Scoot Henderson drove, hit Duop Reath in the right corner, and despite fumbling the ball, Reath stroked a three. Perhaps it was Portland’s night after all?
Khris Middleton tried to stop that narrative as the quarter closed, stroking a pair of “Nuh Uh” threes. But Anfernee Simons replied with one of his own. Back and forth the scoring went. Again. Simons also stroked a heavily-guarded pull-up in the lane with 2.9 seconds left in the period, giving Portland a 96-91 lead after three.
The start of the fourth was a semi-disaster for Milwaukee. Turnovers abounded. They didn’t get off a single shot in the first two minutes of the quarter. In that same span Malcolm Brogdon converted a transition layup and a halfcourt three, staking the Blazers to a 101-91 lead. Bucks Head Coach Doc Rivers called an emergency timeout to regroup and recoup.
That regrouping included free throws on a hack for Giannis, followed by a Portland turnover and a Lillard three. 5 points in 30 seconds for the Bucks forced Billups to call an echo timeout for Portland. The Blazers led 101-95 with 8:57 remaining.
Play steadied a little after that. Lillard scored again but Deandre Ayton hit a couple straight-away shots, allowing Portland to breathe a little.
Then, in an, “It can only happen to Portland” moment, a loose ball off a rebound appeared to hit off of Brook Lopez’s midsection and go out of bounds, but the officials didn’t see what happened and ruled it a jump ball between Lopez and the contesting Ayton. Coach Billups challenged the call, but upon replay the officials determined that the ball actually bounced off Anfernee Simons’ thigh, meaning that Portland’s challenge led to a less-favorable outcome than the original missed call. Technically speaking, it was a successful challenge, though, so the Blazers retained their ability to argue another call later.
The Bucks didn’t score on that play (thank goodness), but Giannis converted a conventional three-point play on their next on, leaving the score 107-102, Portland as the final quarter passed its midpoint.
Both teams concentrated on center scoring after that, with Ayton schooling Lopez in the post and Lopez hitting a three in retaliation. The scoring smorgasbord continued, with no stone left unturned. Whatever the end of the game held, it seemed certain to burn the place down.
Milwaukee struck first in the final four minutes. Malik Beasley converted a layup, followed by a Jerami Grant jumper, then a short shot from Middleton. Portland still led with 3:09 remaining, but only by 4, 113-109.
Coach Billups used his second, and final, challenge contesting a Toumani Camara foul on Lillard. Once again, he was successful. But the overturn resulted in a jump ball. The Bucks won the tip and Lopez hit another three, closing the gap to one, 113-112.
Grant hit a tough jumper over Lillard on the next possession. Then, with the Blazers using two men to deny Giannis the ball, Lopez missed a three. Portland couldn’t convert off of several shots on the next possession, then Lillard dunked, making the score 115-114, Portland with 1:13 remaining.
The Blazers turned over the ball on the next possession. Milwaukee saved their best defense of the game for last. That gave the Bucks the ball with less than a minute remaining, still down one.
Lillard missed the next shot, but Milwaukee forced another turnover and Giannis converted an alley-oop from Dame, finally putting the Bucks ahead 116-115. But Anfernee Simons stepped up again, hitting a floater, regaining the single-point lead. Milwaukee ball, 17.6 seconds left.
Giannis set a huge screen for Lillard on the inbounds, freeing Dame for a moment. But Ayton chased him to the far-side arc, then Malcolm Brogdon closed off the three-point opportunity, throwing a monkey wrench into the Dame Time watch. Lillard passed to Lopez on the opposite side, but Brook missed the three. Brogdon rebounded. The Bucks took a foul (non-shooting) and Portland called timeout, up 117-116, 5.6 seconds remaining.
Jerami Grant received the inbounds pass after the Bucks crowded Simons out of the opportunity. After the take foul, Grant had two free throws. He hit both leaving Portland up 119-116, 4.6 seconds remaining, no Milwaukee timeouts left.
Giannis got the inbounds, then Grant fouled him with 2.8 seconds left. He missed the first, intentionally missed the second for possession, and Brogdon rebounded it for the ballgame.
Stay tuned for extended analysis coming soon!
The Blazers head to the mile-high city to face the Denver Nuggets on Friday evening with a 6:00 PM, Pacific start.