Now that's how you finish off a road trip.
Even with the Trail Blazers coming in losers of four straight, the Bucks never would have expected an easy night of it in Portland--if only because the Bucks' Western road trips never seem to finish with winning records. So there probably wasn't anything terribly surprising about seeing Portland use a late blitz to nearly erase what had been a 22-point Milwaukee lead, but there also wasn't anything too surprising about seeing the Bucks keep their wits and finish off yet another road opponent down the stretch.
In the end it was Brandon Jennings (30 points, 8 ast) and a reinvigorated Ersan Ilyasova (27 pts, 14 rebs) doing the damage for the Bucks, as Milwaukee's pressuring defense kickstarted a 17-0 first quarter run that staked the Bucks to a 30-12 lead that they would never relinquish. Presumptive rookie of the year Damian Lillard (26 pts, 10 ast) battled Jennings gamely, but it was the 23-year-old veteran who had the last laugh with 13 fourth quarter points to help the Bucks improve to 11-9 on the road while dooming Portland to a fifth consecutive defeat.
Jennings didn't have the smoothest of starts offensively, turning it over three times in the first quarter before he made a shot. But he brought the pressure on Lillard from the outset, hounding the Blazers' star rookie full-court for much of the game and combining with Monta Ellis to notch eight steals for the game and 14 first quarter points. The guards' scoring complemented Ilyasova's 10, as J.J. Hickson struggled to keep an eye on Ilyasova around the perimeter. The Blazers responded with seven straight to finish the quarter, but at 30-19 you couldn't complain too much about the Bucks' first twelve minutes.
The same could be said of the Bucks' second quarter, which started with Mike Dunleavy and John Henson splitting the opening 10 points of the period and ended with a flourish from Jennings, who split a double-team, nearly stumbled and then gathered himself to finish at the rim to make it 62-45 at halftime. The most encouraging aspect of Jennings' game was his refusal to settle for tough jumpers, with his career-best 15 free throw attempts accurately reflecting his attack-minded night. Whether he was going left, right or splitting double-teams down the middle, Jennings gave the Blazers fits with his ability to get into the paint--which made it surprisingly academic that he failed to hit a three for the first time since November 26.
The Bucks looked like they might run away with the game in the third quarter, twice extending to a 22-point lead thanks in large part to Ilyasova's inside-out work (12 points in the first eight minutes). But Portland surged back into the game in part thanks to the ejection of Larry Sanders, who lost his cool after a foul call on Ilyasova. Sanders was evidently upset about a non-call on the other end, and it took only about five seconds for Danny Crawford to hit him with a pair of technicals that sent the NBA's leading shot-blocker to the showers with three minutes remaining in the third. Portland had already scored six straight on a pair of Luke Babbitt threes, and they followed with five more to cap an 11-0 run that re-energized the crowd and drew Portland to within 80-70 late in the period.
Thankfully, the Bucks continued to find ways to hold the Blazers at bay. Dunleavy drove and drew a foul on Wes Matthews, whose subsequent reaction drew a technical and handed Dunleavy a three-point possession, though Nicolas Batum's corner three and Lillard's off-kilter buzzer-beater would draw Portland to within 84-76 heading into the fourth. The Bucks seemed to find their breath in the intermission leading to the fourth, however, and another crowd-quieting three from Dunleavy would cap a quick 7-0 run to start the fourth and push the Bucks out to a comfortable 91-76 lead. From there on out it was all Jennings, as the Bucks' mercurial point guard would score 13 in the final 7:11 to deliver Milwaukee's eleventh road win of the season. Consecutive threes from Lillard and Matthews would narrow the lead to 104-100 inside two minutes, but the Blazers were unable to make it a one-possession game and the Bucks would salt the game away at the foul line.
With the win the Bucks are now curiously better on the road (11-9) than at home (10-9), though they'll have a chance to even up those marks on Tuesday when they host the struggling-but-still-dangerous Sixers at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. They'll no doubt head home with plenty of confidence following a 3-1 road trip that marked their first winning trip of at least that length since way back in 2001, but it's not clear if confidence is always the most constructive emotion with this season's Bucks. We've seen far too many letdown games thus far this season, suggesting that success might breed a bit too much satisfaction for the Bucks' own good. But with a series of winnable games upcoming, the Bucks have yet another chance to build some breathing room between themselves and the chasing pack. Beating the 9th seeded Sixers would be a nice start, eh?