UPDATE: Andrew Gruman tweets that Luke Ridnour will start ahead of Nate Wolters, Caron Butler and Ersan Ilyasova will plan, Gary Neal will be a game-time decision and Brandon Knight is out.
Blazers update. Portland has been one of the best stories of the early season, racing to seven straight wins including five in a row on the road. But are they for real? Paul Flannery writes:
The defense doesn't have to be spectacular because the offense has been incredibly efficient. Portland came into Monday night ranked third in points per possession behind only Miami and the Clippers. While Aldridge and Lillard continue to do most of the work, Portland has a bunch of shooters, including Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright, who are all shooting better than 40 percent from three. Matthews, in particular, has been fantastic, draining 53 percent of shots from downtown threes. When the shots don't fall, the big men have been attacking the glass, grabbing almost 30 percent of the available boards.
Former Bucks assistant and head coach Terry Stotts returns to Milwaukee looking to close out a 4-0 road trip and improve to 8-0 against sub-.500 teams on the season. While the Bucks haven't had their projected starting lineup on the court for a single minute together thus far, Portland's starting five has been among the league's best thus far this season.
As expected, the Blazers have been led by LaMarcus Aldridge (22.6 ppg/9.2 rpg/20.5 PER) and reigning rookie of the year Damian Lillard (20.0 ppg/6.1 apg/19.2 PER), with important contributions from fellow starters Nic Batum, Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez. Lillard and Marquette alum Matthews have combined for nearly six threes per game and are largely responsible for Portland's impressive rankings in both threes made (3rd) and accuracy (4th, 42.2%). And while the Blazeers have been mostly fueled by their shooting and offensive rebounding (6th), Portland's defense has also done enough to get by. The Blazers are holding opponents to a league-best 28.6% from three while relying on summer acquisition Robin Lopez to patrol the paint, allowing Aldridge to play his natural power forward position. Portland has also gotten valuable contributions off the bench from former Buck Mo Williams (Mo and Tater Stotts together again!), 2012 fifth overall pick and (Kings/Rockets castaway) Thomas Robinson and floor-spacing wing Dorell Wright.
Injury report. Starters Caron Butler (shoulder) and Ersan Ilyasova (ankle) are expected back in the Bucks' lineup on Wednesday, but it's not yet clear if they'll start or come off the bench. Charles Gardner writes:
"I'm close to 100% but still a little bit sore," Ilyasova said after Tuesday's practice at the Cousins Center. "I have to work on my conditioning, but I feel much better and am looking forward to try to play the next game."
Ilyasova admitted he might have come back a bit too soon but the Bucks had players injured and he wanted to help out when the season opened.
"I remember the first game in New York I kind of twisted my ankle multiple times and it got worse," ilyasova said. "It was good to have these days to recover and just get stronger."
Brandon Knight remains limited by his perpetually strained hamstrings (OK, looks like just his right one at this point), while Zaza Pachulia (flu) and Gary Neal (plantar fasciitis) are game-time decisions. In short, the Bucks could once again have only ten guys available depending on the availability of Zaza and Neal. Jim Paschke has more from Ersan and Larry Drew in his latest video update.
If he comes off the bench, look for Ersan to team with John Henson at the other big spot--a combo we haven't seen at all yet this season and saw for just 106 minutes last year. They may struggle defensively at times, but it's definitely the most offensively skilled pairing the Bucks can go with up front. I'm down with giving it an extended look, especially with Larry Sanders out of commission for a while.
As for Butler, his return would presumably endanger Giannis Antetokounmpo's minutes (BOO), though it's also not clear if he'd be returning to the starting five or backing up Khris Middleton. While Middleton hasn't been consistent enough on the offensive end, he's been the Bucks' best wing defender thus far and hasn't had Butler's penchant for chucking long two pointers (34.7% on 2PT shots). Still, I'd expect Butler back in the starting lineup sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than Larry Drew seems to be leaning on him as the team's veteran leader--and it's easier to do that while he's starting. I know that seems like an obnoxiously un-meritocratic way to do business, but Drew wouldn't be the only coach to take that approach. My bigger issue is not who starts but who plays the most overall: bottom line is that Caron Butler doesn't look like a guy who should be playing 31 mpg at this stage of his career. Middleton's limited track record coming into camp presumably didn't help his case, but fortunately he seems to be winning his coach over with a strong camp and encouraging start to the season.
Mediocre factors. Peeking at the Bucks' four factors (eFG%, TO%, ORB%, FT/FGA), there's not much to get excited about right now. The Bucks are ever-so-slightly above average in terms of forcing opponent turnovers (14th!) and below average in all seven of the remaining categories (four each offense/defense). On the plus side, they rank 5th in three-point percentage thanks to the unsustainably hot shooting of O.J. Mayo (53.3% from three) and Gary Neal (54.8%). Speaking of Mayo, be sure to check out Dan's piece on O.J. from Monday to see why his red-hot shooting hasn't translated into favorable results for the Bucks.
SaveOurBucks.com. Some though-provoking stuff over at the newly-launched SaveOurBucks.com, which essentially summarizes all the depressing details of the Bucks' last 22 years of futility while arguing for why an immediate rebuild is critical to the team's long-term survival. With the Bucks in last place and the mouth-watering 2014 draft looking better and better each week, I predict you'll find little resistance to that line of thinking among Bucks fans these days.