Trail Blazers vs. Bucks Preview: Lillard leads Portland into Milwaukee

USA TODAY Sports

After needing a serious dose of Monta Ellis heroism to save them from an embarrassing home loss to the Magic on Sunday, the Bucks go back to work on Tuesday night looking to complete a two-game sweep of the Trail Blazers at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

2012/2013 NBA Season
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(31-35, 9-24 road)
vs.
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(33-32, 17-16 home)
March 19, 2013
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:00 CT
FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Damian Lillard PG Brandon Jennings
Wesley Matthews SG Monta Ellis
Nicolas Batum SF Marquis Daniels
J.J. Hickson PF Ekpe Udoh*
LaMarcus Aldridge C Larry Sanders
2012/13 Advanced Stats
91.2 (19th) Pace 94.7 (3rd)
106.6 (10th) ORtg 103.8 (20th)
108.1 (25th) DRtg 105.0 (11th)

On the Blazers: Blazers Edge | Portland Roundball Society | The Oregonian

Blazer update. Portland kicked off a five-game road trip with a disappointing loss in Philadelphia on Monday night, dropping a narrow 101-100 decision to the struggling Sixers despite 32 points and 14 boards from LaMarcus Aldridge and 27 points, seven rebounds and seven dimes from presumptive rookie of the year Damian Lillard.

It's a critical stretch for former Bucks coach Terry Stotts and his Blazers, who sit 3.5 games back of the Lakers for the final Western playoff spot with three games in hand. Aside from Kobe and company, the Blazers also trail the Mavericks and Jazz in the standings, and they arrive in Milwaukee on the second night of a four-games-in-five-nights stretch. On paper that looks like a major test for a team that's managed just nine wins in 33 road games, and last night's loss to the fading Sixers was hardly the start they wanted. The Bucks already won the first half of the season series with a 110-104 win in Portland on January 19, racing to a big lead and then hanging on late thanks to Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.

Over at Blazers Edge, our friend Dave writes that while a compressed schedule will make depth more important than ever, the Blazers' fortunes will likely rely on Lillard and Aldridge outpacing their Milwaukee counterparts.

Fatigue will play a critical role in this matchup, meaning Portland's bench players could prove more pivotal than the Blazers would prefer. If ever there were a week to show what (if anything) those young reserves have learned this year, this would be it. Damian Lillard could also be a pivot point. He's capable of torching the Bucks but he's also capable of getting torched. Letting one of the Milwaukee guards go off would be more beneficial to them than having Lillard go off would be to the Blazers. Whatever matchup Damian draws, he needs to win it. Aldridge vs. Ilyasova is another key. Ilyasova destroyed the Blazers in the first meeting between these teams, propelling the Bucks to a victory on Portland's home court. LaMarcus cannot afford to lose that matchup again. Both players have had magnificent weeks so the duel should be fun to watch.

Ilyasova hurting. Ersan has been on fire of late with three straight 20/10 performances, but he looks likely to be out of the picture tonight due to hip and back soreness, a week after missing two games due to a sore knee. Ditto for Luc Mbah a Moute, whose turf toe is expected to cost him another game.

Ekpe Udoh started in Ilyasova's place against the Kings, so it figures he'd be the most likely candidate to slide into Ersan's spot tonight, especially given the size the Blazers bring up front with Aldridge and J.J. Hickson.

Defense optional. Scrolling through the Bucks' splits since the all-star break, there's been no shortage of Bucks putting up huge numbers. Monta Ellis' rejuventation is the most obvious, but don't overlook Brandon Jennings (16.9 ppg, 9.7 apg, .435/.440 shooting), Ilyasova (17.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg, .503/.436/.893) and Larry Sanders (11.5 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 2.8 bpg). Looking only at those numbers, you would have guessed the Bucks would be 10-4 or 11-3 since the all-star break, yet they've only won half of their 14 games.

So what gives? Well, not surprisingly it's the defense which is falling part. Like a year ago, the Bucks have evolved into a high-pace, high-scoring, low-defense outfit, though this time around there's no Drew Gooden to blame for the Bucks' ills. Since the all-star break, Milwaukee is scoring an excellent 106.0 pts/100 possessions but coughing up 105.7 to opponents, as compared to 99.7/101.0 before the all-star break (note that these stats are from NBA.com/stats, which calculates possession-based stats slightly differently than the Basketball Reference numbers we reference up top in every game preview).

Interestingly, the Bucks are actually doing a notably better job on the defensive boards (73.8% vs. 70.2%) and fouling at a lower rate, but they're forcing fewer turnovers and conceding more three pointers (7.5/game at 36.6% vs. 6.0 at 34.1% pre-all-star) while overall allowing a much-higher eFG% (51.0% vs. 48.2%). Aside from the improvement from three, opponents are also shooting a much higher percentage in the non-restricted paint area (45.1% vs. 36.2%) and marginally better in the restricted area (57.5% vs. 55.9%).

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