The Portland Trail Blazers held on to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 119-116 in front of a packed house at the Moda Center tonight. As we all know, this was no ordinary Wednesday night game. This matchup featured the return of Blazers icon Damian Lillard.
The emotions were running high from the moment Mark Mason, the longtime Blazers PA, announced the starting lineups. He gave Lillard the introduction he deserved, and the crowd responded with a standing ovation. It’s been well documented what Lillard meant to Portland and the circumstances leading up to his trade. No one really wanted to see Lillard traded, but it was time to move on.
Tonight marked the first time Rip City would see Dame wearing a different jersey on the Blazers home court. After the dust settled from the pre-game video tributes and fanfare, it came down to a struggling Bucks defense against an improving Blazers offense. The anticipation of the first Dame points ended quickly with a Lillard layup at the 10:44 mark of the first quarter. After that, the Blazers settled in and were able to score at will against the aforementioned bad Bucks defense. The Blazers would lead a balanced attack in the first quarter, but it was Scoot Henderson who really set the tone in the second quarter. He would end the first half with 15 points and prove to the Blazers faithful that it was worth keeping the third pick in the draft.
Portland earned the victory tonight by taking care of the ball, imposing their will in the paint, and shooting a respectable 12-28 (43%) from beyond the arc. All three of those areas have been weak points for the Blazers all season, so it was good to see them hang on at the end and avoid being on the all-too-familiar wrong end of Dame Time.
If you missed any of the action, catch up with Dave Deckard’s quarter-by-quarter recap of the game. After you’ve read that, here are the details that defined the contest.
Wax on, Wax off
Mr. Miyagi instructed his student Daniel LaRusso in “The Karate Kid” to apply wax on his vehicle. It was a task that the young student was not excited about, but Mr. Miyagi understood the importance of patience and timing. Young Anfernee Simons studied under Lillard for 5 seasons in Portland. Applying that wax to the car year after year. But it was time for the student to become the teacher, and tonight Simons was up for the job. Ant would score a team-high 24 points and hit the go ahead bucket with 17.1 seconds left in the game.
On the next possession, with everyone in Portland holding their breath, Lillard would not even get an attempt at the game-winning three. Tonight, the teacher did show bursts of athleticism (See Dame dunk at the 1:13 mark of the fourth quarter) and the ability to hit the deep ball. But the student was able to match him nearly point for point. It was again Ant’s ability to drive to the rim that set him apart against the Bucks.
At the 5:01 mark of the first quarter, Simons drove hard to the rim, only to see his layup attempt get swatted by Brook Lopez. That would be the last time Simons got blocked at the rim. The rest of the game, you saw him adjust to the length of Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The drives to the rim would eventually open up the long-distance shooting for Simons. Every time the Bucks got close, Simons would hit a three to maintain the Blazers’ advantage. Also, if you want to see how Ant’s passing is improving, check out the sweet dish at the 6:40 mark of the third quarter. He passed to an open Deandre Ayton for an effortless dunk.
There was much written about the decision to keep the third pick in the draft and trade Lillard. Henderson and Dame will forever be linked in Blazers history, but it might be the duels between Simons and Lillard that will be remembered for years to come.
The other intriguing matchup tonight was between Deandre Ayton and the remaining crew from the 2021 Bucks championship team. Ayton was on the Phoenix Suns back then, and it was the matchup between Giannis and Lopez against Ayton that propelled Milwaukie to the title. You could tell Ayton had something to prove tonight, and he delivered, especially down the stretch when the Bucks were making their comeback.
Ayton doesn’t seem to get tired when he’s battling down low. His rebounding ability and touch around the rim make him an imposing center. Tonight he moved well against Lopez and his 12-foot jump shot brought Giannis away from the paint. He was alert on alley-oops and stayed out of foul trouble. With Ayton playing steady minutes in the starting rotation, that allows Doup Reath to come off the bench and outplay his counterparts. Reath finished tied for the team high in plus/minus with plus-13, largely due to the fact that he is better than the other team’s bench players. The ripple effects of Ayton’s positive play can be seen across the team.
Keep it Consistent
The Blazers have been a mixed bag all season on the offensive side of the ball. Overall, they rank in the bottom of the league in offensive rating, but since Portland coach Chauncey Billups has used a consistent starting lineup of Malcom Brogdon, Simons, Jabari Walker, Jerami Grant, and Ayton, the offense has looked much better. A clear area of emphasis has been scoring more around the rim. Tonight, the Blazers outscored the Bucks 56-46 in the paint. This is no easy task considering the Bucks have Giannis who can literally take one step from the three-point arc and be at the rim. It was clear the coaching staff instructed The Blazers to go right at Giannis and Lopez and it worked. Creating paint pressure draws fouls and opens up shooters on the perimeter. I know Portland was locked in tonight, but it would be good to see this trend continue for the rest of the season.
Setting the Tone
The Blazers remember their first matchup against the Bucks this season. Portland built a huge lead only to see it erased down the stretch of the game. I have been focusing on fast starts, and tonight it seemed especially important. It would’ve been easy to get caught up in the return of Dame Lillard, and all of a sudden be down double-digits after a few logo threes. Credit to the Blazers, the team stayed focused and kept up with the Bucks in the first half, leading 67-65 at halftime. These fast starts are vital in keeping this young team in games.
The Bright Lights were on
Tonight, the Blazers got their one and only national televised game for the season. Besides Simons showing out and hitting the eventual game winner, the other big beneficiary was Scoot Henderson. The drafting of Henderson effectively forced the Lillard trade and there’s been a spotlight on him all season to perform. Except for highlight clips, the rest of the country hasn’t been able to make the comparison between the two players.
Well, if tonight was the only sample size, it would show the Blazers made the correct decision in drafting Henderson. He was electric in the second quarter. Showing off his speed, three-point shot, and decision making, all the traits we have been wanting to see from the rookie. Henderson picked a good night to show off, but the question all year has been can he keep it up? We have now seen two games in a row of effective Scoot play, so let’s hope he can keep this streak going.
The Unsung Hero
Walker is becoming the glue guy the Blazers have needed for years. Lillard would not be playing for the Bucks if the Blazers had found a “do everything guy” earlier in his career. Walker is the common denominator in the Blazers most successful offensive units this season. Moving him to the starting lineup has allowed him more playing time with Grant and Brogdon, which has helped his development. There was a sequence in the first quarter where Walker set a screen, passed to the open man, cut to the corner, and hit the open corner three. I know Walker didn’t finish the game, but that was more because the Bucks finish games with Giannis and Lopez and force you to go big. I don’t want Walker’s play to go unnoticed. He is a big reason why the Blazers have been playing better as of late.
The Blazers have a night off before facing a road test against the Denver Nuggets on Friday. Tipoff is scheduled for a little after 6 p.m. PST.